It's the End of an Era for Southern Importers
The year is 1915. Woodrow Wilson is president, World War I is underway, Alexander Graham Bell makes the first transcontinental telephone call, 25,000 women converge on New York's 5th Avenue to demand the right to vote, Frank Sinatra is born, Babe Ruth makes his pitching debut, a loaf of bread costs 7 cents, and Southern Importers opens on the second floor of the former Prince Theater at 320 Fannin Street, Houston, Texas.
Nearly every conceivable evolution has occurred in the 104 years since, and through it all, Southern Importers endured. Talk about a legacy.
June 29, though, marks the end of an era: That's the day the storied, family-owned business of more than a century will close its doors for good.
Ask third-generation owner Mickey Frost about his favorite memories running the place and your query will be met with a pregnant pause as Frost, 78, thumbs through a mental rolodex of his last nearly five decades on the job. "I wouldn't hardly know where to start," he admits.
At first, Southern Importers dealt primarily in overseas shipments—hence the name—for its biggest customers: theaters and department stores. So it went for decades, until the business finally acquiesced to demands to open to the public, who desperately yearned for access to all the Christmas decor it kept stocked for retailers' holiday window displays.
Finally a retail operation itself, Southern Importers moved to a more appropriate outpost on Louisiana Street and, eventually, to its final and longest-standing location in the Museum District in the early '60s. There, in a squat, one-story building at 4825 San Jacinto Street, it's supplied decorations, costumes, party supplies, props, and novelties of every imaginable sort to generations of Houstonians.
Dance teachers, trick-or-treaters, costume designers, circus performers, party planners, and more flocked here for leotards, cat ears, gorilla suits, rubber masks, feather boas, animatronic Santa Clauses, inflatable palm trees, and spray-on snow. The shop made fans for Gypsy Rose Lee and vinyl hula skirts for Ringling Brothers' elephants. Tina Knowles sourced fabric for her legendary Destiny's Child costumes, and Tommy Tune, Lucille Ball, Patrick Swayze, and Selena all shopped here.
For proof, look no further than the wall of photos—many of them autographed—depicting those famous faces and many more alongside Frost's father, Milton, who worked at the store until age 95. Incredibly, he would've turned 104 this year, too.
For years, Southern Importers played a critical role in the golden age of department stores, sourcing and supplying everything from colored raffia produce to custom-height stools for a new type of seated mannequin, all used in elaborate seasonal displays by retail giants like Macy's, Neiman's, Gimbels, Nordstrom, and more. Frost personally fulfilled hundreds of orders for bizarre, hard-to-come-by props he had a knack for marketing: When he got word of some "old, weathered buoys lying around" in New England, "I said, wait a minute—that's an idea," Frost recalls. He was on to something: J.C. Penney "absolutely fell in love" with the nautical objects and used them for an upcoming cruise promotion.
Business took an unexpected turn around 1975 when, as Frost puts it, "Halloween exploded." All of a sudden, it seemed, the holiday was just as much for grown-ups as it was for trick-or-treating kids, and, inexplicably, adults wanted in on the fun. "What stores are prepared for that?" Frost says. The answer, it turned out, was Southern Importers and...practically no one else. Dance recitals represented a huge chunk of the shop's business, and its massive inventory of leotards, tutus, and cheap cat ears and devil horns uniquely positioned the shop to corner the newfound Halloween costume market.
It worked: "People went crazy over it," Frost says, and lines formed outside come October. "We were lucky as the years went by. We were able to ride very high on a crest, and we rode the wave until everybody else started getting in on the act. When something starts getting big, every body wants a piece of the pie."
More changes forced constant adjustment, but Frost says being on the frontlines of the evolving market for so long has been, for the most part, "actually quite fun." There are bittersweet moments, like watching long-time suppliers shutter or other stores fold under pressure, but on the whole, trying to keep up has kept Frost on his toes in a good way. "I don't mind change," he says. "It's exciting."
So, yes, Southern Importers rolled with the punches. But some hit hard, like the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which Frost says dramatically cut into department stores' display budgets and thusly a major chunk of Southern Importers' business. Bureaucracy, too—particularly stricter legal requirements around the bidding process for schools seeking suppliers, which was also historically a big part of Frost's business—only made for more headaches and a tighter squeeze.
And then came the internet, "which says, try to sell something, brick-and-mortar stores, and we'll take you to task," Frost laments. Add to the slimmer profits, thicker red tape, and increased costs the fact that Frost, who isn't getting any younger, has worked six or more days a week for most of his life, and you'll probably understand the bittersweet conclusion he's reached to finally call it.
A self-described workaholic, Frost says he'll most miss the variety and unpredictability of each day in the store. Long-time customers—many with fond childhood memories who made trips to Southern Importers something of a generational tradition—have reached out to share heart-warming personal stories in spades.
But nothing gold can stay.
"Basically, our time has come," Frost says. "All I can say is we loved every minute of it."
Southern Importers will remain open Monday–Saturday, 9 a.m.–6 p.m., until its final day on June 29.