New Paltz’s Kon-Tiki, a longstanding Main St. fixture, closes its doors

The late Ludwig Montesa stands in front of his parent’s shop in New Paltz. Kon-Tiki is closing after 29 years in business. (Photo by Gilbert Plantinga)

Residents and visitors have lost another longstanding fixture of Main Street as the door of Kon-Tiki Trading Co. is locked for the last time. The cramped space beyond that door, for the last 29 years, has held secrets and treasures alike for anyone willing to browse the riot of merchandise or talk with whomever was behind the counter.

Building owner Ed Burke knew owners Virginia and Oscar Montesa from when he bought 70 Main Street in 1992. The Montesas had opened the shop two years earlier, and also rented one of the apartments above it. As he recalls, they had this arrangement “to give Ludwig an opportunity to interact with the community.” Ludwig Montesa, one of their sons, passed away in April of 2013 following an epileptic seizure. If giving Ludwig the chance to interact with the community was his parents’ goal, they were incredibly successful. Even members of the Huguenot patriarchy are not honored with an annual festival, as Ludwig Montesa has been every year since his death. A documentary about him was made this year, and plans are in the works for a music scholarship in his name. It might be fairer to say that living on Main Street gave the community an opportunity to interact with Ludwig. In any case, mission accomplished.

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Burke saw the impact Ludwig’s death had on his parents. It wasn’t long after that “I think they just packed one suitcase, and left” to return to the Phillippines, where they were both born and they still owned property. “I think it was too emotional for them. They couldn’t pack anything else.”

Allyson Ferrara, a ten-year employee, shed some light on the sudden departure. Ludwig and Oscar had always taken an extended trip to the Phillippines every year, and after his death they returned for what was to be four months, but that time “went by and Virginia and Oscar ended up deciding to spend the majority of their time living over there and asked if I would mind running the shop for them.” She’s been doing it ever since, while maintaining close communication with her distant bosses. In recent months she was opening the store up to local artists, rearranging for the first time in memory to showcase talented residents. She had the time because business was very slow; while she didn’t actually know what was about to happen, it didn’t surprise her.

Not everyone who shopped at Kon-Tiki knew that this “ambassador of New Paltz” was even connected to the store. For some, it was a basic head shop, with a wide selection of devices designed for inhaling the smoke of certain plants. Others were drawn to the collection of clothing and cheap footwear. Tapestries, incense, good-luck coins, semi-precious stones and tchotchkes of a seemingly endless variety were neatly organized on every shelf and hung liberally from the walls, including over the door in the back, which for years had a sign apologizing for the bathroom being out of order. It’s been called a bazaar, a curio shop and a place where all prices are negotiable — depending on who was sitting at the counter.

Ferrara definitely knew there was a connection between the quirky shop and the eccentric young man who’d befriended her some time earlier. “I had walked in one day to buy prayer flags for a friend, and ended up striking up a conversation with Oscar who was working at the time. I had known and been friends with Ludwig since I had moved to New Paltz (in 2006), and had mentioned we were friends. By the end of my purchase, Oscar asked if I wanted to work for them on the weekends. I had two other jobs at the time and was going to school, but was psyched for the chance to work at a funky little store in New Paltz, so I took the opportunity.”

Christina Vazquez was 13 the first time her mother brought her to Kon-Tiki. “I ended up falling in love with the store and going back every year for jewelry, back-to-school clothes and incense,” she recalled. In fact, on that first visit she decided she wanted to live in New Paltz, a goal she eventually achieved. She was shopping there for “nag champa incense, change purses and necklaces” right up until the doors were closed, and she is going to miss it. She likens it to New Paltz itself, in that the store was “eclectic, fun, controversial, welcoming and hard to imagine being gone.”

It was freshman year of college when Amanda Sisenstein discovered the shop. At that time, “Starbucks was the only cafe, there was some pizza, but [Main Street] was mostly head shops.” She put Kon-Tiki partially in that category, but said it was “always worth a stop” because it was “jam-packed with treasures.” Upon reflection, she said the store was something of a blend of a head shop and Spenser’s, with a big variety of unique and unusual items. It wasn’t long afterward that she met Ludwig Montesa in a characteristically odd way: he sent her a birthday card. “I was celebrating my 21st at Snugs, and he was with friends at Ariel Bookstore when they were buying me cards. When I got it I said, ‘Ludwig who?’ and my friends said, “Trench coat, heels, you know.” She didn’t, but it turned out Ludwig knew many details about her, captured by a hyper-observant mind which seemed incapable of forgetting any detail.

Vazquez was brought there by a mother in search of her favorite shoes, and “those five-dollar shoes” are something Sisenstein also thought important enough to mention. Among Oscar Montesa’s tidbits about business: “always lower the price, because you can make it up on volume.”

Virginia worked some of the busiest hours, while Oscar typically kept the shop open into the night, quietly reading a book if no one was inside. At those times he was able to take time to connect in a way his wife couldn’t during the more hectic moments. If one took the time to listen, he’d share tales of his life: witnessing atrocities as a young boy in Japanese-occupied Phillippines; getting on a cargo ship for the United States with no money or prospects yet ending up working at the United Nations and on Wall Street; tips and tricks gleaned from decades of being in business at every level. At times he’d accept the attention as payment for whatever item was being purchased; otherwise, he was always eager to haggle. His soft-spoken wisdom, often drowned out in the alcohol-fueled thrum of downtown, was always free.

That isn’t to say no one was listening or learning. Ferrara certainly was. She learned about merchandising and marketing, but also that “everyone deserves a moment of your time. I’ve met some of my best friends working there, whether they were just customers who came in to buy something and ended up chatting for a few hours to suddenly us hanging out regularly, or whether they were fellow employees who ended up being near and dear friends to me (some were customers first, then employees!). I think Ludwig was a big part of that lesson for me, that everyone deserves five minutes. Ludwig always offered anyone and everyone at least five minutes of his time, it didn’t matter what walk of life you came from. He had more friends than anyone I know, and I think that’s because his heart was big enough to let everyone in. Sometimes it’s easy to forget, but I try to hold on to that one thing in particular that I learned from Ludwig: everyone’s got a story if you’ve got the time to listen to them. Who knows? They might end up being a great friend who enriches your experience.”

Sisenstein found such a friend in Ludwig Montesa; it was through her efforts that Ludwig Day came into being. Only after he died did she really get to know his parents, but doubtless she found her friend’s spirit behind their eyes.

Vazquez didn’t say she was shopping for glass pipes, but she called Kon-Tiki a “head shop with heart” because the owners “did not joke around calling things bowls or bongs. It was glassware or a pipe, or you weren’t buying it.”

It wasn’t that hard line about what to sell to whom that led to the end of Kon-Tiki. Landlord Burke believes it was a combination of trying to manage from thousands of miles away — he applauds Ferrara for tapping into the “vibe of New Paltz” to facilitate that — and competition from online vendors. He says that a new prospective tenant hopes to run a similar business, which would suit Burke just fine: “I don’t want another eatery,” he said, recalling a time when Main Street wasn’t largely a place to buy food or alcohol.

The business might be similar, but the relationship may be harder to replicate. The Montesas had a lease option through 2002, Burke said, and they never saw need for a lease again after that. He did raise the rent three times in those 17 years, he said — including once recently — but the amount was based on what the Montesas said they could afford, and he maintains that he final rent for them was still 30% lower than what other retail space nearby is commanding.

Virginia Montesa declined the opportunity to talk in depth, saying just that closing the store was another period of mourning. Through their daughter Farah, the family released a statement which read, “The Montesa family would like to express their gratitude for Kon-Tiki’s 29 years of business. Thank you for the patronage, but moreover, thank you for the chats, the customers who became friends, the employees who became family, and the community who gave love and support when Ludwig passed away. New Paltz will be in our hearts forever.”

“Seeing the comments on Facebook, I realize that for this village [Kon-Tiki] was a little bit of a time capsule,” said Burke. He guessed “thousands upon thousands of people” interacted with the Montesas, and that all came away with “pretty fond memories.”

Ferrara echoes the sentiment, but she also wants people to know who helped make those fond memories. “I hope that New Paltz knows that the family behind Kon-Tiki are some of the kindest, most generous, and loving people in this town and beyond. They have been nothing but wonderful to me. They started out as my bosses and I leave the store with them as my family. I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to become great friends with someone as amazing as Ludwig. We had been friends before I started working at Kon-Tiki, but once I started working there we would spend our weekends together working and the weekdays together just hanging out in town. For people that knew Ludwig and how special and full of love he was, they would not be surprised to know that his parents are equally as amazing, loving, and unique. Ludwig obviously got his enormous heart from his parents, Virginia and Oscar.”

There are 4 comments

  1. Pat Grieci and Family

    I knew Virginia, Oscar, Cyrus, Farah and Ludwig for many happy years. We were their next door neighbors on Palentown Rd, in Kerhonkson. They were the most beautiful family and were the best friends we could have wanted. We left Kerhonkson years ago but always kept in touch with the Montesa’s. One day, many years later, my husband and I took a trip to New Paltz and Visited Kon Tiki hoping to see Virginia or Oscar, but at the door to the shop who greeted us but “Wig Wig” as we called him when he was a little boy. And after so many years he remembered us immediately!!! With a big hug and many tears we reminisced about the fun days on Palentown Rd. I am still grieved to know Ludwig has passed on. Virginia and I kept in touch at Christmas Time for many years – I pray that beautiful family and our good friends are still well and remember us. We will never forget them.

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