Its mouth gaping, white teeth gleaming, the 70-foot-long shark swallows you whole as you enter the 30,000-square-foot building known as Souvenir City – where, as the name implies, you can find a huge assortment of souvenirs from the beach: air-brushed T-shirts, live hermit crabs in painted shells, homemade fudge and much more.
The scary-looking shark isn’t just the entrance to this family-owned business that started in 1956. It’s become an iconic image of Gulf Shores, a fun photo op that leads into a fun place to shop.
But Souvenir City is more than just a touristy, kitschy stop for tourists. The business has an interesting history that started when Josie Weaver Weir moved from Selma to Gulf Shores in the 1940s and opened a café called Jo’s Lunchbox. In 1956, in the same, 1,000-square-foot building, she turned the restaurant into The Anchor gift shop.
Black-and-white photographs from the time show a Gulf Shores that’s almost unrecognizable today. Then, it was a sleepy stretch of road with no development, no attractions, no high-rises, just sand dunes and surf.
In 1959, Josie’s son, Clyde Weir, took over the gift shop. According to a 2006 Gulf Coast Newspapers article about Souvenir City’s 50th anniversary, Clyde had been to Miami Beach on his honeymoon and had seen a store there called Souvenir City. “I kind of stole the name,” he told the reporter. He wanted to sell “inexpensive little trinkets and things.”
His idea was a stroke of genius. Over the years, as Gulf Shores grew, so did Souvenir City. For many years, the store was recognized by the giant conch shell on the eastern-facing side along Alabama 59. In 1984, when a competitor announced plans to open directly across the street, Clyde added the original 50-foot shark entrance on the south side of the building.
On Feb. 4, 1996, Souvenir City caught fire and burned to the ground. With it went the conch, the shark, all the merchandise in the store and irreplaceable treasures like the “water line” mark on the wall from Hurricane Frederic, as well as family photographs.
In a letter of thanks to the firefighters and others who’d tried to save the building on that freezing-cold night, Clyde wrote: “We had many pictures of Gulf Shores and Souvenir City that captured the history of both. The photographs were invaluable, because they represented three generations of our family to have had a hand in making Souvenir City a success.”
Clyde was determined to reopen, and the store – and its welcoming shark – came back bigger than ever. When Souvenir City reopened on March 1, 1997, it had a new, supersized shark entrance facing Alabama 59, to greet customers with its menacing but benign grin.
The shark is a concrete-and-rebar structure, says current owner Paul Johnson, who estimates that “hundreds upon hundreds” of photos are taken every day of customers in front and inside of it. The mouth itself is about 20 feet tall.
Paul, who worked at Souvenir City during the summer when he was in high school, went back to work there after the store was rebuilt. “He offered me a job here, and I’ve been here ever since,” says Paul, who bought the business in 2007. “It’s been a blessing to be here and be a part of it.”
Meanwhile, Clyde, now in his 80s, has retired, but he’s still making an impact on his community. In 2006, he and his daughter Andrea donated 25 acres to the new, $30 million Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, which opened in March of 2020, about four miles north of the beach in Gulf Shores.
The zoo is fantastic, of course, but if anyone wants to get up close and personal with a shark, well, you know where to go.
Original Article: https://www.al.com/life/2020/07/inside-the-famous-sharks-mouth-at-souvenir-city-in-gulf-shores.html