The peak of a pandemic might not seem like an opportune time to open a business, but for James Morelos, it was perfect. With an eye for vintage and the original, the maker’s market veteran turned his roving pop-up concept into a permanent Palm Springs fixture just under two years ago — and it became an instant overnight success.
Small brands from Coachella Valley, Joshua Tree and beyond form the core of his bohemian department store Mojave Flea, whose Indian Canyon Drive flagship is a treasure trove of haute desert-inspired goods — homewares, accessories and artwork, vintage apparel and apothecary items, all with a distinct California-cool edge.
“During the pandemic, people were looking for an escape from reality, and I knew a brick-and-mortar marketplace in Palm Springs would work,” he says. “So, when I got a call about taking over the space here, it was just about having no fear and going for it. Even though it was a strange time, the store popped from day one, and it’s grown from there.” In fact the collective boutique-in-boutique concept and its wares proved so successful a second 10,000-square-foot outpost opened in nearby Yucca Valley last October, followed by Fog City Flea at the Ferry Building in San Francisco earlier this year.
Morelos has always loved being surrounded by creativity. An L.A. native, he moved to Seattle in the ’90s and worked at Rudy’s Barber Shop inside the original Ace Hotel, where he saw firsthand the innovative and queer-owned businesses coming out of the city. But it was relocating to New York in the early aughts — later opening a salon and a design store in Brooklyn — that gave Morelos a true taste for retail. When friends opened a hip hotel in Phoenicia, a sleepy hamlet on the edge of the Catskills, he became GM and daydreamed about creating a marketplace there, too.
“The terms ‘maker’ and ‘influencer’ hadn’t quite happened yet, but we brought in a ton of cool stuff, did a seasonal pop-up there in 2014, and people loved it,” he shares. When the owners weren’t keen to make it monthly, Morelos went nomadic and spent several years producing his Phoenicia Flea makers market along the Hudson River Valley, the Berkshires and Brooklyn. After seasonal winter pop-ups out west ultimately resulted in a move back to California and Palm Springs in the summer of 2018, Mojave Flea made new fans at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club and ROW DTLA before COVID hit.
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But desert chic home décor and artful souvenirs aside, for Morelos, brand discovery and creating a more meaningful experience is key when it comes to his take on retail. With growing interest to shop small and support local makers year-round, not just on the annual holiday season Small Business Saturday, Morelos says trading posts like Mojave Flea and his roving pop-ups help foster a personal connection between artisans and shoppers.
“From the beginning, Instagram was everything and allowed us to create relationships with over 200 small brands and build an incredible network of makers and creatives,” he says. To better understand different regions, Morelos and his team ran several Southern Flea roaming markets in Richmond, Virginia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, to connect with area makers and with an eye to eventually create brick-and-mortar trading posts in each city. For now, his attention is on Berkeley, where a Mojave Flea will open “around 4th Street near Design with Reach, Anthropology and Madewell.” Another store is landing in his old Hudson Valley, N.Y., stomping ground soon, too.
Meanwhile, back in Palm Springs, Morelos’ all-vintage concept, Market Market, is readying to open on Jan. 1 — two years to the day from the first Mojave Flea, which he says feels meaningful. Located in the former Stein Mart (1555 S Palm Canyon Drive), its curated spaces will feature vintage and repurposed art, fashion and furniture. “Vintage is one of the biggest categories in our stores, and moving away from excess manufacturing and disposable living, making things from dead stock, and repurposing these amazing finds just feels right,” he says.
Seasoned vintage pickers, take note: Morelos has worked with “all kinds of amazing people with incredible taste in design and furniture” for the project to source hidden treasures, including Trina Turk and designer Rene Holguin of RTH. “We’re doing away with the tired and dusty antique mall. We want all the things, but not in a hoarding type of situation — items should breathe and each vignette should tell a story in a new way,” says Morelos of Market Market. Anyone with a Southern California desert road trip pending should take a peek at these handy Mojave Flea-approved Maker’s Guides to Palm Springs and Joshua Tree — both feature a solid list of not to be missed cultural experiences, plus places to eat, drink, shop and stay in the area.
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