Tierra Del Lagarto Scottsdale, AZ
Interview with Meg Van Lith, co-owner of Tierra Del Lagarto
When did you open your store, and how did you get started in the business?
Meg Van Lith: Tierra Del Lagarto opened in the spring of 1991. Prior to that, for decades, Jerry and Linda, (with me in tow) lived the corporate life – moving every few years. When an opportunity arose to escape the financial world and put down roots, they chose to return to the Valley. All of the moves over the years gave Linda the opportunity to renovate and decorate nearly a dozen homes. The years of non-stop design work gave her the vision to open our first space in Old Town Scottsdale. Amazingly, Jerry came along for the ride, and a few years later I jumped in and the three of us have been going strong ever since. About 8 years ago we opened our current 12,000 square foot showroom on Hayden Road.
What do you love about owning the shop?
MVL: Travelling and hand-sourcing our goods as a family is our real passion. Every year we go to India, Morocco, Turkey and Indonesia, and we are always trying to cram another country in when we can. Working one on one with artisans and villages all over the world connects us to our products. There is so much pleasure in finding an unusual artifact and making it available for our customers at home. We have met so many wonderful people in our travels over the years, and sharing their stories with our ever-interested clients is a true joy.
In addition, showing the larger world to my young kids has been one of my biggest perks. For the last 8 years my oldest has gone with me on at least one trip a year – he loves Turkey and Bali the most! The twins have made it a little more challenging, but we are in the process of filling up their passports too.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of the business?
MVL: A real challenge as an importer is juggling container loads of goods throughout the year. Many of our vendors are smaller village-based artisans and require time and resources to complete orders. We keep warehouses in-country in Indonesia and Morocco, for example, and have to wait until shipments are complete for containers to start the long journey to AZ. Getting things here when people are actually in town in our seasonal economy can be challenging! While we are a showroom first, we are also a working warehouse. We do not keep offsite storage, and if we get a few containers in at once – things can get a little full and crazy. Thank goodness we have such wonderful customers who cherish the ‘thrill of the hunt!” We have been fondly referred to as souk or a bazaar from many happy clients over the years.
PHOTO: Meg Van Lith
“We sell furniture and accessories, but we also sell a story. I don’t think any of us expected to have the story of our family and our travels to be of such interest to our customers. Sharing our lives and our work with people that come in again and again is one of our favorite things about the store.”
– Meg Van Lith, Owner
PHOTO: Meg Van Lith
What are you favorite pieces in the store right now?
MVL: On one of our recent trips to India, we found a number of antique single beds in pieces in a field outside of a warehouse. They had beautiful turnings and were made of the best quality teak and rosewood, but had been sitting outside for who knows how long. We were able to buy the whole lot and salvage enough parts to create new daybeds out of the pieces. It takes two of the old beds to make each three-sided daybed – they fit twin mattresses perfectly. They work wonderfully on covered patios, or in lieu of a sofa in a family room.
Do you have any best sellers?
MVL: While people have been known to fight over our one-of-a-kind antiques, our best sellers are the easy pieces that can brighten up anyone’s room. We sell a huge amount of table lamps and faux plants. Lamps have long been our best performing category, and we really pride ourselves on our collection of different lighting options. Pierced lanterns from Morocco and Turkey are also included in this group. Recently, however, we have found that everyone seems to need a faux succulent arrangement in every room. We do custom plant arrangements everyday – in our own containers or even in ones that clients bring in from home. So many of our clients live in AZ only part of the year, but every home looks better with a little greenery.
Where do you find your inspiration to do what you do?
MVL: Inspiration comes from our travels, from the work that can only be done by hand, from the indigenous art and craft of villagers the world over. While we can Pinterest and magazine-obsess like anyone – real inspiration is seeing the origins of design as it has evolved over the centuries. Baskets hand-woven in Tenganan, Indonesia, old olive oil pots from central Turkey, ancient doors from Rajasthan, brass lanterns that have been hammered out unchanged for generations in Morocco – this is why we do what we do.
PHOTO: Meg Van Lith
Tell us a little bit about your team members.
MVL: While the principles are the three of us – and, yes, we are actually family – our team is our adopted family. We have been so happy to have attracted the most wonderful people that have stayed with us often for decades at a time. From our sales staff and merchandiser, to the talented guys that run our back room, we are so lucky to have them all.
Tell us about the importance of customer service, and what sets you apart from online shopping.
MVL: Customer service has always been a major focus. We geared our whole on approval process around ease of use for clients. Allowing clients to take things out for up to four days really takes the pressure off. We have our own delivery service and staff, and ship anywhere in the world. We have always wanted Tierra to feel like a comfortable place to find something out of the ordinary for the home. Whether is it helping clients with the inevitable “pot shelves” all AZ homes seem to have, or planning a whole home or patio, we are here to suggest options for any budget. In addition, nearly half our business is to the Trade, and we are happy to recommend the right fit for a client looking for full service design work.
We love to share the story of the origins of our pieces, and have a real passion for travel. Over the years we have helped many clients plan their first trips to our favorite destinations and joke that we also run a free travel agency!
How They Host a Party?
We love to use decorative home accessories on our tablescapes when entertaining. Our in-store events always have tables piled high with tea tables, lanterns, and interesting critters. Who doesn’t love a cast bronze elephant walking through their hors d’oeuvres, or a carved capital holding up the canapés? We use vintage lassi cups for utensils, and drape tables in saris.
PHOTO: Meg Van Lith
Do you have a favorite traveling story from one of your many journeys?
MVL: There are so many! I love that I have a picture of all three of my kids with what look like the fairy towers of Disney in the background – but they are all really playing in the grass in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
We had a fabulous trip to Marrakech last year where we took a few customers who are also dear friends. There are some very funny hammam stories I can’t really pass on here – but needless to say everyone involved came out very well exfoliated…and more than a little red in the cheek too! Finding dozens of huge, exotic pierced lanterns and having custom hand-painted ceilings made for a fabulous home in the Biltmore were also highlights of that trip.
In Bali this year I got to take my 8 year old on his first river rafting trip. Paddling past stone carvings on the side of the Agung River after days of searching the villages for teak benches and hand-woven baskets was wonderful. He’s at the point where he remembers the trips, but still loves that he’s been going there every year since way before he can remember – he was 7 months old when we first took him.
There was the trip to Kashmir a dozen years ago where Linda and I were taken into the police department because we supposedly weren’t in our house boat after the curfew at night. Basically we were expected to give a bribe to go about our business – but the really interesting thing was our names on a white board showing every single foreign tourist that had been in Srinagar that year. I think we were numbers 240 and 241. This was a time of pretty tense politics and everywhere there were sand bags and machine-gun-toting military.
Our very first importing trip came in 1995 when I was 19 and just starting out full-time at Tierra. Jerry and Linda had a plan to go to Indonesia – leaving our manager, Jason Maine, in charge at the store. He ended up leaving to start what would eventually become a fabulous design career, (see House Beautiful, December 2011 – amazing!) – at the same time as the proposed trip and we talked about scrapping the voyage. Instead I stepped in, insisting we could not only do it ourselves, but why not make the trip bigger, longer and more involved. What was going to be a mere exploratory mission became a full container in Bali and a side trip to northern Thailand. Linda and I had an incredible time and a buying partnership was born.
PHOTO: Left, Scott Sandler. Right, Meg Van Lith.
Do you have any favorite local restaurants or shops in the area?
MVL: While we love Scottsdale –and frequent the smaller restaurants and shops up here like Habaneros for tacos, Rustic Stuff for huge inspiration, and constant stops at Kidstop for toys – we spend a lot of time in downtown Phoenix. The strip on Central with Windsor, Joyride Tacos, and Postino is wonderful. Frances on Camelback and Central is a favorite. We are all about supporting our local businesses!
Do you have any upcoming events that you’d like to share?
MVL: We have a container on its way from Indonesia due in mid-summer. We will be having a fun cocktail party to celebrate those of us that stay for the summer when it comes in!