The Christmas shopping season is at the starting gate, chomping at the bit, awaiting the starting bell. And once rung, Coastal shoppers can race to a myriad of exciting shops. From the Blue Crab Gal- lery in Bay St. Louis to Gulfport’s Martin Miazza Gifts, and from Bi- loxi’s Paper Moon to Salmagundi in Ocean Springs, Coastal shoppers are truly blessed. But back in the day the Coast was not so blessed. If Christmas shoppers longed for something unique, New Orleans or Mobile was their only option. But in the mid Fifties all that changed. The Purple Lantern opened and became THE place to shop on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The Purple Lantern was the creation of Mary Jo Sternberg. Not long after graduating from New Orleans’ Sophie Newcomb College, she opened her first shop in Gulfport on 27th Avenue across the street from the present day Amtrak station. The building, like others on the block, had not been properly maintained. When Mary Jo painted it purple, the city fathers hardly raised an eyebrow. She filled her first shop with the exquisite finery for which the PurpleLantern would always be known. But problems lurked just outside.
Dear Readers, Here’s some additonal information concering the Purple Lantern, as written by Nels Anderson:
When was the shop started: I really don’t know, because it was in operation at the highway 49 location when I arrived at Gulf Park College to teach. I heard quite a bit about the old shop, but that’s all.
How I met Mary Jo: I suspect I met her through the Gulfport Little Theatre. I’m sure I was introduced there and started borrowing items for the sets. The theatre at the foot of Hwy 49 was in the process of being built, or was at least in the planning stage. I do remember borrowing items from the store. The first summer I was there, I ran the shows at SIX GUN JUNCTION, and I believe it was the second summer that I needed a job and was a good enough friend of Mary Jo’s to ask for a job at The Purple Lantern as a salesperson and general worker. I remember spending many nights pricing merchandize before it went on the floor. I can remember that the lady employees and I would look at some of the merchandise that Mary Jo had ordered, and say to each other, “This will never sell….it’s so ugly, or whatever.” Those items usually turned out to be the one’s that sold first. We’d just shake our heads. And the amount of merchandise was unbelievable. It would take us hours to price everything. She had a pretty high mark-up, and we’d also always think things were priced too high to sell……but they did. Again, we’d shake our heads.
My work as a salesperson was terrible. Mr. Sternberg (Mary Jo’s father) would get upset with me because I wouldn’t follow the customers around and try to sell them certain things. I was terrible at that, and I think the customerrs thought I was following them around to make sure they didn’t steal anything…….and that would make me nervous.
I started helping Mary Jo with the display work, and that became my main job. This leads me to the big fire….in 1965, I believe, or thereabouts. I’m sure you have that date. Immediately before the fire, we put a Christmas display in the windows existing of a huge Christmas Train, with a car in each window with built in shelves for merchandise. I worked long and hard on that, only to have it burn up just a very few days after we installed it. The fire was a big blow to Mary Jo. I was on my way to New Orleans to see a play with Helen Picking ( a fellow professor at Gulf Park College) when we heard the news on the radio. When we got home that evening, we drove by the store and could see that it was a major disaster….and I knew I’d hear from Mary Jo first thing in the morning. Almost immediately, she found an empty building on the other side of the train tracks, It was just a few days before Christmas. We worked day and night getting that building ready, and had a new store painted (purple), stocked, and open in 7 or 8 days. The next morning after we opened, I got on a bus for Albuquerque to spend Christmas with my sister. I slept all the way across Texas, In was so tired,.
Some people may remember the fire sale that Mary Jo held in the garage room next to the main store. We carried salvageable items there for days after Christmas I assume. When the sale opened we were flooded with customers, and the sale went on for weeks and weeks. If I remember right, she didn’t shut it down until she stopped making at least a couple hundred dollars a day from it.
We immediately started designing the new store. The layout generally followed the layout of the old shop, with a few new innovations. There were around 20 shops, and it was my job to design and build each. I’m sure I had help at some point, but have a very sketchy memory of that time because we were working so hard. I’d get the shops done, one at a time, until the building downtown was repaired and ready to move in to. It was during this time that I finally earned the good graces of Papa Sternberg. He just loved the carousel horses I designed and painted for the Toy Carousel. He thought they were just great, and maybe I was worth my tiny salary after all! We spent hours and days getting ready. Remember, I was teaching at Gulf Park College at the same time, so there were many late nights. I think a lot of the heavy work was done during the summer, so that helped. Opening day was a big occasion.
Just a couple of other things I can remember: I enjoyed shopping with Mary Jo at the new trade mart in New Orleans and at the big trade center in Dallas; eventually we drove all the way to Chicago to shop at the famous Merchandise Mart there. Mary Jo had a very interesting way of shopping. She would flirt with the salesmen unmerceably. In New Orleans, I can remember her shopping for make-up and over-night cases. She’d butter up the salesman, and the pull things off his display, and pile them up in the center of the room. Then she’d say, “Send me two of each,” and walk away, leaving the poor salesman to repair his plundered salesroom. I’d look back as we walked away, and he’d be standing there, smiling as hard as he could, and waving, and I am certain swearing under his breath!
Once in Chicago, she was buying coffee mugs, and there was a wall of mug sized niches, with a mug in each. She’d pull out the mugs she wanted just to the edge of the shelf, leaving the salesman to run along and grab the mugs before they crashed to the floor. She loved doing things like that, and the salesmen would stand there with big smiles on their twisted faces. Good times! Occasionally, the salesmen would close their doors at 5:00 and bring out the champagne for everyone left in the shop. We hit a lot of shops just before 5:00!