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Newhall’s Bell of the Old West

Profile: Bobbi Jean Bell celebrates Western styles and crafts at OutWest

Posted: May 15, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 15, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Bobbi Jean Bell of OutWest in Newhall was recently named Woman of the Year by California state Sen. Sharon Runner, who represents portions of the Santa Clarita Valley.

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Bobbi Jean Bell loves the West. It’s in the music she listens to, the books she reads, the clothes she wears and, for the last two years, the focus of her business.

As co-owner with her husband Jim of OutWest Western Boutique and Cultural Center in Newhall and its sister website, www.outwestmktg.com, Bell offers a retail taste — from original art to gourmet food stuffs, of what she loves to her community and the world.

“The website has been getting orders from Australia and Japan,” Bell said excitedly. “The West lives in people’s imagination and hearts. It’s without boundary. I know I’ve always been attracted to it. Roy Rogers was my first hero.”

Art
Inside the store, paintings and sculptures from local artists abound in between the fringed leather jackets, patterned shirts and thick silver accessories. A fixture at the Cowboy Poetry Festival every year with its Buckaroo Book Shop, OutWest also outfits models for the festival’s Cowboy couture fashion show.

Every month, OutWest features a new artist in store, dedicating a whole wall to his or her work, and takes part in Newhall’s First Thursday Art Walk, held on Main Street.

“It’s very important to us to encourage people to come down and experience this district, whether it’s to have dinner or a glass of wine, to catch a show or just to see how beautiful the twinkling lights are here at night,” Bell said. “That’s the Western way, to say, ‘Come on in, the door’s open.’”

Moving out west
Born in Minneapolis, Minn., Bell found her calling later in life. An East Coast resident for most of her life, Bell and her husband, a plastics manufacturing executive, were living in Connecticut in 1991 when the call came for the couple to move to Pasadena.

Bell was not happy about relocating. In fact, she was downright scared.

“I had moved around a lot as a youngster, but moving to California was daunting. I hadn’t been to the West Coast often. I thought everyone would say ‘Yo’ and be tanned, healthy and gorgeous. I didn’t think I would fit in,” Bell said with a laugh.
Her sister in Vermont started sending books to Bell, tomes about pioneer families making the same trek under entirely different circumstances.

“I saw what those people went through, and it put things in perspective. I thought, if they can do that, I can certainly pack a moving van and get on a plane,” she said.

The Autry
The move allowed Bell, who had for worked for decades as a mass merchandise and customer service manager at busy department stores, an opportunity to slow down.

She eschewed management and instead took a lower-stress job as a cosmetic saleswoman at a high-end retail store.

At the same time, Bell began to volunteer at the Gene Autry Museum in Glendale in 1998, where she acted as a docent for seven years before being hired on as its store manager, eventually becoming the director of retail operations.

“I loved it,” she said. “But in January, 2007, like many nonprofits, there were cutbacks in staffing. I was one of 14 employees whose positions were eliminated.”

Working with career coaches, Bell planned her next move.

Finding her place
The first requirement Bell had was staying close to home, which, after moving in 1999, was Canyon Country. The next was finding the best fit for Bell’s myriad experience.

“I had worked with authors, artists, curators and scholars at the museum, which really brought a richness to my day, yet I also had a traditional retail background,” she said. “What I realized in the process was that I couldn’t be divorced from the West and get a corporate job. That just wasn’t where my heart was anymore.”

What Bell wanted to do was to continue telling the stories of the West through carefully selected merchandise. With the encouragement of her husband, who continued to work a day job, the Bells launched OutWest Marketing online and began hosting trunk shows and special events around Los Angeles, featuring their favorite Western artists and manufacturers.

“It was kind of scary, yet very exciting, as exhilarating as any extreme sport I’ve read about. I call it ‘extreme retailing,’” Bell said. “Sometimes Jim would just rent a hotel room, then we’d set up shop outside with some merchandise and a radio playing Western music.”

The Bells began scoping out potential storefronts and settled fairly quickly upon an available space on Main Street in Newhall or as it’s often referred to, Old Town Newhall. With its Walk of Western Stars and proximity to the William S. Hart Museum and Park, the store just felt right.

“No other place had the soul or history this one did,” Bell said. “This area spoke to our hearts.”

Giving back
OutWest the store opened in July 2009, and began welcoming local artists into the fold through exhibits, as well as live musical performances and author readings.

Bell is like a den mother to up-and-coming Santa Clarita Valley craftspeople, such as Kari Hewitt of Serendipity Lights, which makes clever lamps out of empty liquor bottles, including a cowboy-inspired Jack Daniels bottle outfitted with a red handkerchief.

“There’s a creative spirit that exists in all of us, and we really like to help nurture that,” Bell said. “The West is very broad; it includes everything from jazz to country to blue grass and all kind of arts and music. We all live here. We’re all Westerners.”

Hewitt was so impressed by her experience with Bell that she nominated the store owner for the Woman of the Year award given by California State Senator Sharon Runner to women who “do extraordinary things for their community.”

 On April 29, Bell received the honor for the Santa Clarita Valley part of Runner’s 17th district area; four women from the senator’s remaining areas were also awarded.

Though she’s a volunteer with the Old Town Newhall Association and Friends of Hart Park, and was also instrumental in bringing the First Thursday Art Walk to Newhall, Bell was honestly surprised by the attention.

“I was very humbled. These were woman addressing real social needs. I wondered why I was there. Then one of the other winners told me how important it was to volunteer in cultural areas,” Bell said. “‘I’m so glad someone is doing what you’re doing,’ she said. That was wonderful.”

OutWest Western Boutique and Cultural Center is located at 24265 Main St. Newhall. For more information, call (661) 255-7087 or visit www.outwestmktg.com.

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