Culture / Newsy

One of Houston’s Oldest Stores is Shuttering After 104 Years — Say Goodbye to the Unforgettable Southern Importers

Iconic Novelty Shop Stood Out as a Quirky Wonderland

BY // 06.13.19

Mickey Frost can tell you, surrounded by spooky Halloween costumes and seasonal decorations, precisely how many cases of sheet moss Foley’s ordered from Southern Importers more than a decade ago. That would be 53 each year.

He can tell you the exact dimensions — down to half an inch — of the custom stools he had manufactured for one client in days gone by. That height was 36.5 inches.

He can tell you, explicitly, that 1979 to 1981 were the years when Halloween first exploded, becoming almost as much for adults as kids. And while Southern Importers wasn’t entirely prepared for the onslaught of adults pounding down their doors, the dance recital collection of black leotards and cat ears did the trick.

He can tell you everything.

Love, passion, commitment — whatever you want to call it — will do that to you.

Soon, Houston’s Southern Importers will close after 104 years in business, and Frost, its owner, will be left with those memories, the store’s enduring legacy and whatever he doesn’t manage to sell, which he will then probably donate to local schools.

On June 29th, the family-owned Southern Importers will shutter, ending the run of the one-stop shop for more seasonal decorations, theatrical supplies and Halloween costumes than you could possibly imagine.

We’re not sure just why you’d need a shiny latex Nixon mask, pillowy faux snowdrift, a mini trigger glue gun and a battered New England buoy all at once, but if you did, Southern Importers would have you covered.

After all, they’ve been the go-to for department stores, individuals and more since 1915 in its first location. Its current spot in the Museum District, at 4825 San Jacinto Street, is the third and longest-lasting locale.

“It’s been a very, very good run,” Frost tells PaperCity.

In a certain sense, the closing was inevitable, a sign of the times.

“This is what happens. I guess primarily the Internet has this marvelous way of doing a lot of good things. But at the same time, it’s pretty good at sucking the guts out of a lot of retail,” Frost chuckles.

Plans call for the Southern Importers building to be torn down — with a new mixed-use development to rise in its place at 4825 San Jacinto Street.

But the end can’t take away the store’s legacy, boldly displayed in a wall of age-tinged photographs featuring celebrities. Materials for costumes designed for Beyoncé and James Brown were sourced from Southern Importers. ZZ Top was known to drop by. Patrick Swayze once made an appearance. So did Pancho Claus, Tommy Tune, Lucille Ball, Gypsy Rose Lee and even Selena.

“All kinds of different personalities have come in over the years. And most of them have not only been nice but a heck of a lot of fun. Years ago, Jo Anne Worley of Laugh In came in. She came in a second time because she was having so much fun,” Frost laughs.

“She acted here just like she did in live theater. She got behind the counter and played with stuff. It was like she was performing, great fun.”

Southern Importers’ Fun Land

It’s hard to resist that playful spirit at Southern Importers as you stroll past a graveyard of flesh-eating zombies or a display of twinkling aluminum Christmas trees, the kind that Foley’s bought from the shop to decorate during the holiday season so many years ago.

In fact, the only people having more fun than the customers would have to be Frost and the salespeople themselves — many of whom have worked at Southern Importers for more than 40 years now.

Finding their wares was nothing short of adventure, so the unique offerings come as no surprise.

“We are really broadly ranged, and it’s worked out nicely. I want us to be remembered as a Houston tradition. And as a fun place to visit, and a place where for many of the years they could discover new things,” Frost says.

In the days gone by — maybe back in the days when Southern Importers made hula skirts for Barnum & Bailey’s elephants — Frost would travel all over, on the hunt for new ideas and bring them back at a time where no one else was really carrying that stuff. He was something of a pioneer.

“And so it became a real destination. I had a ball doing it. Because sometimes I’d make some rather incredible discoveries,” Frost notes.

A particularly peculiar Spanish import, which caught J.C. Penney’s corporate New York office hook, line and sinker, comes to mind.

“I sent a few photos to my guy, and he showed them the stuff. The guy went gaga,” Frost laughs.

That relationship was born of pitchforks. Not just any pitchforks, of course, but truly natural, organic ones Frost found.

They’re made of vines channeled through tubes, winding and growing into wooden pitchforks, about five feet long. J.C. Penney had never seen anything like them, and soon they were catalogue-bound.

“They were blown away because it was so unusual. And wrapping two pitchforks together to ship UPS was no easy feat,” Frost laughs.

The buoys were another hit, the kind you’re thinking of. Frost sourced them from up north, taken straight from lobster traps, in all different shapes and colors. They may be a more common decor item now, but they weren’t decades ago.

“I sent a picture of them and they went nuts over them,” Frost says. “For us, it was a ball. It was a blessing.”

There were as many mysteries as moments of enlightenment. Foley’s ordered snowdrift every winter like clockwork for a client — sometimes alongside that sheet moss from Virginia. “That blew my mind. I have no idea what they did with it. But I know that they bought it for several years in a row,” Frost says.

Once Southern Importers closes its doors, it’ll be impossible to find so many varieties of decorations, supplies and more beneath one roof. It’s just not the same scrolling through them online.

Telling his employees that it was all coming to a close was a challenge, even though it wasn’t entirely unexpected.

“When I told them we were closing. I had to be — it’s just not a usual employee meeting. I just told them, you know it’s no secret. You’ve seen business dropped off, how there’s nobody in the store right now. Things are just not like they used to be,” Frost says.

“And you know that I haven’t been able to order stuff for you all to replenish stuff like in the past. The time is come. I just told them I’ve done everything that I possibly could for you all. I’ve done a few things that I’m not going to get into, but I’ve been doing it for them because otherwise we probably should have closed at least two, three, four years ago. We’re family, we’ve been together so long.”

Including his father, Milton, who would have turned 104 this month. And who didn’t stop working — though his son will insist his father never would have admitted he stopped working, period — until he turned 95.

Frost, who was a mechanical and aeronautical engineer in a former life, came to work for Southern Importers in 1975, when his father said he would retire. Clearly, he just kept on chugging along in his family’s beloved spot for decades after.

The sky was the limit, but now the sun is setting on Southern Importers.

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