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Something old, something new

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Taking over an iconic Tucson store is no mean feat. But the new owners of Desert Vintage are succeeding in making it their own. Story and photos by Gillian Drummond. Cover photo by Adam Rodriguez.

As a twelve-year-old, Salima Boufelfel would stop by Desert Vintage with her mother. Salima would have money saved up from babysitting that she’d spend in the 4th Avenue thrift shops. Little did she guess that, a little more than a dozen years later, she would be at the helm of one of Tucson’s iconic vintage stores.

Salima Boufelfel & Roberto Cowan

Salima wears a 1950’s dress by American designer Claire McCardell. Roberto wears a 1940’s shirt from his store and replica 1920’s Levi’s from Bon in Tucson.

Salima and husband Roberto Cowan stumbled into the ownership of the store last summer after then owner Kathleen Lauth told them she was retiring. Salima was well-known to Kathleen as a customer, so she asked if Salima would be interested in taking over.

The couple had designs on owning a store, but their first thought was to do it in Paris, a city they had fallen in love with after traveling there in 2012. A year after taking ownership in their home town (both were born and raised in Tucson), they’re delighted with the public’s reaction to what is the same fabulous old store, but new as well.

Carpet was pulled up, some wooden flooring installed to match the original, new changing rooms put in, new clothes racks and rails put up, and the round racks that made the previous store space busy have been removed. The idea is that the cleaner, more uncluttered merchandising reflects their own aesthetic – vintage yet modern, stylish yet “not costumey”, as Salima puts it. They have also set up a Desert Vintage online store.

Inside Desert Vintage

Inside the new Desert Vintage

“This is a landmark in Tucson. Since 1974 people have known it as Desert Vintage, and going into that we kind of were taking a risk in changing so much so quickly. But when we opened I think people responded really well to the changes and the shift and the energy in the store,” says Salima.

Salima and Roberto acquire most of their clothes from people calling them up – usually after a relative has died. Just six weeks after they opened, some 4th Avenue shoppers came in to tell them they had a lot of 1920s clothes they didn’t know what to do with. The original owners had been affluent, and the cuts and quality of the clothing were top notch, says Roberto.

“The ’20s is not only one of my favorite times in fashion, it’s increasingly hard to come by,” says Salima. “We bought one of the most amazing estates we’ve ever seen,” says Salima. “It was incredible, it was such a good first buy to get that first year.”

Desert Vintage - 636 N 4th Ave  Tucson, AZ 85705

Desert Vintage – 636 N 4th Ave, Tucson

Clothes_Desert_Vintage Salima and Roberto met when they were working at Buffalo Exchange in Tucson, where both went on to be buyers. Working at the clothing exchange exposed Roberto to vintage clothing and its power to make a wearer stand out from the crowd. “I had always been a thrifter, I always did it for the individuality,” he says.

At Flowing Wells High School he was voted ‘Most likely to become a fashion designer’, he says. He taught himself sewing – the only one in his family who knew how to, he says. “My family come from a retailing background, all of my family shops at malls.” Roberto was attracted to the fabrics and cuts of older clothing.

“We’re very much aware of how things are made and where things come from. It just goes with the territory. We have a different value for things now,” he says.

Salima hopes the public is coming around to that sensibility too. “I think there are a lot of people becoming a lot more conscious, and taking decisions into their own hands. I’d like to think we’re moving in a direction where people want to invest more money in things that they are going to have forever,” she says.

In high school, Salima would thrift-shop, and swap clothes with her vintage-loving best friend. Salima’s mother is local artist and self-described “eco-creative” Linda Cato, who had a more bohemian style but owned a few choice vintage pieces.

Says Salima: “I loved the [vintage] styles, and it struck me as really different, really wearable. I love that it’s something that nobody else is going to be wearing. But I always loved to wear vintage in a contemporary way, it was never in a theatrical way, and I was never just in one era.”


Mixing it up, shaking up a look and a style, celebrating the very old as well as the new, the classic as well as the funky, is what this couple is about. Their rented house in Tucson’s downtown Barrio Viejo is a study in all of that. A comical modern seat (in the shape of a hand) sits close to a 1950s sofa, newly upholstered in leather.

Plain oatmeal fabric is used as window coverings. A silver pouffe hails from Morocco. The bedroom is stark: neutral shades of cream and white, a painting standing against a wall.


In their bedroom, they favor neutral shades and simple lines.

Color comes in the form of accessories: antique Navajo rugs; vivid beaded armchairs from Ghana (a Gem and Mineral Show find); and an old shelving unit – possibly a Post Office fixture – displaying nick-nacks like a 1950’s camera and early edition books.


This shelving unit in the living room is possible an old Post Office sorting shelf. The beaded chair is a Tucson Gem Show find.

You can’t blame Salima and Roberto for not really knowing what the future holds; at age 26 and 23 respectively, it is their job to be keeping their options open. But for now, they’re glad they answered the pull of Desert Vintage.

Says Salima: “No matter what’s in store for us ten or fifteen years from now, I feel it was the right time and the right place.”

* Desert Vintage’s new Fall hours, starting October 1, are 11am to 7pm Monday through Saturday, and 12pm to 6pm Sunday. Visit their website and online store at

* Salima and Roberto will be taking part in the opening night event of Tucson Fashion Week on October 17th. More details here.


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