Oscar-winner 'Nomadland' made Quartzsite famous. Now the Arizona town is readying for new tourists


It was the day after “Nomadland,” partly filmed in Quartzsite, Arizona, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. But the owner of a rock shop and gift store was readying a sign advertising another Quartzsite claim to fame: Home of the world’s largest belt buckle.

“I’m going to pull these guys off the freeway,” said Phil Bates, owner of the Main Trading Post on Monday as he readied the roadside sign, advertising the four-by-eight foot buckle.

One of Quartzsite’s industries has indeed been inducing drivers along Interstate 10 to turn off into the town for gas and food.

Quartzsite also hosts internationally-known rock and mineral shows and has shops that sell gems year-round.

But its other lifeblood is winter visitors. Both people with tricked-out RVs take a designated space in one of the town’s many proper RV parks. As well as people who find space out in the surrounding desert.

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Where Fern lived in ‘Nomadland’

It was the latter that was depicted in “Nomadland.” Frances McDormand won the Best Actress award for her portrayal of Fern, a widow who moves from a company town where the company has closed. She turns her van into her house and begins her nomadic life in Quartzsite, a small town in the desert of western Arizona.

It is not entirely clear whether the Best Picture win will translate into more tourists deciding to make a pit stop in Quartzsite. But Bates said he plans to be ready to sell “Nomadland”-related T-shirts and tchotchkes to any of the newly curious.

“I saw that it won,” he said, “It was like, son of a gun, that movie really took off.”

The Quartzsite Yacht Club

The filming of the movie, in late 2018, did not seem to draw much attention from residents, nor disrupt daily activities. Most of McDormand’s scenes were filmed where the nomadic travelers camp, in the desert south of I-10. The town proper lies north of the freeway, though two Quartzsite businesses are shown in the film.

In one scene, McDormand dances with co-star David Strathairn inside the Quartzsite Yacht Club, a bar and grill on Main Street that features live music when it’s open.

Those wanting to visit the Quartzsite Yacht Club, however, will have to wait until at least October. The bar closed for the season in February, a bit early because of staffing issues, according to its Facebook page.

MeMe Selleck, the Yacht Club’s owner since 2015, said the bar will reopen in October along with what she anticipates will be “Nomadland” merchandise for sale. She no doubt will sell more memberships to the Quartzsite Yacht Club, each priced at $49.99.

The bar is at the center of a landlord-tenant dispute that has been scheduled for trial in La Paz County Superior Court in July, court records show. But Selleck didn’t expect that to alter her business.

Donald Miller, who sings his “Quartzsite Vendor Blues” in the film, will be back at the club, Selleck said.

“With the movie and the big hype, I’ve been getting a lot of messages,” Selleck said. “I think it will be a positive for everybody in this town.”

A sad piano song at Reader’s Oasis

In the movie, McDormand also takes in a performance by Paul Winer, who plays a melancholy boogie-woogie piano song paying tribute to dead friends. That piano sits in a small music hall adjoining the Reader’s Oasis bookstore, also along Main Street.

A location scout for the film heard Winer’s playing and sent a video to the film’s director, Chloé Zhao, who decided to include him in the film, said Joanne Winer, Paul’s wife.

In the scene at the piano, Winer offers a musical toast to, as he sings it, “the friends who had to depart. The friends in our heart,” concluding, “Help me smile away the tears.”

Winer died in November at 75 after an illness that started to hit him around the time of filming, Joanne Winer said. Paul Winer didn’t get to see himself in the movie, but he figured he would make the final cut after he received a check for $1,000, Joanne Winer said. She also received an advance royalty check of another $1,000 as Winer’s song, “Next To The Track Blues,” was put on the film’s soundtrack.

Paul Winer earned the nickname “The Naked Bookseller” because he would be naked much of the time. Though, Joanne Winer said, he didn’t have to be told that the filmmakers would want him clothed for his piano performance in the movie.

Joanne Winer said she’s hoping for a “Nomadland” bump in business. She said that with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping away tourists this winter, particularly Canadians, her business is off 80% compared to last year.

Much of her business, she said, comes from tourists who want to pick up a book as a souvenir, rather than a T-shirt.

Desert dwellers and the all-important bucket

The nomads who camp in the desert form their own community during the winter months, said Mark Goldberg, who runs a Quartzsite Off-Road, an atlas of interesting sites that can be viewed by users of all-terrain vehicles.

Goldberg also helps organize volunteer groups that clean up after what he called the small percentage of desert dwellers who leave waste behind.

Though the movie famously describes the merits of different sizes of plastic buckets to be used as toilets, Goldberg said the film didn’t show proper disposal techniques. That would involve either a pit toilet on Bureau of Land Management land or a solid waste facility in Quartzsite.

“We want to maintain the quality of what we have,” he said, “the beauty of the desert.”

Most of the seasonal Quartzsite visitors, both the nomads and the RV dwellers, have begun packing up, fleeing to cooler climes as summer approaches, said Lynda Goldberg, a member of the Quartzsite Town Council. Mark Goldberg is her husband.

During the summer, motorists stop for fuel, food and, from the town’s perspective, hopefully, a keepsake of some sort.

The winter visitors begin returning in October. Some hold out until after Thanksgiving. Tourist traffic picks up in January when the gem shows start.

Goldberg said that she expects to see a few more long-term visitors next fall and winter as a result of the movie. “I don’t think it’s going to be a huge, huge amount, but I do think that we will absolutely have some curious people,” she said.

In April, the town council passed a proclamation to show its formal appreciation for the “national and international recognition” the movie brought to Quartzsite, its businesses and residents.

Goldberg thinks more motorists will pull off of I-10, just to get a brief peek at the place where the movie was filmed. She said she expected the gift shops that line Main Street to soon start featuring “Nomadland”-related items.

One possibility she thought about was a 5-gallon bucket. To be used as a novelty, not a necessity.

“I can see white buckets with Quartzsite on them,” she said. “You darn well know that’s coming.”

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