In the sleepy little town of Pascagoula, Mississippi, exists a tangible piece of Southern history; Johnson Brothers Jewelry Company. The elegant, well appointed shop has operated in the same location since 1946, serving second and third generations of Pascagoula’s families. The shop, its original owners and the foundation they established reminds everyone what true Southern charm is all about.
Hardy Johnson was one of six brothers who grew up during the Great Depression. All six brothers turned to the fine jewelry industry to make their living. Each brother opened his own retail store scattered from Texas to Mississippi. All six stores shared the Johnson Brothers name, but it is the store in Pascagoula, Mississippi, that has faithfully served its community for more than 65 years.
Hardy Johnson, and his wife Earline, created a piece of history when they opened their doors 66 years ago. Hardy was a watch repair man and Earline loved handling the front of the store, visiting with the folks.
“Hardy would sit in the back at his repair bench, and the men would come in and sit and visit,” recalls Debbie Willis, manager of the store. “Earline would stay out front, behind the counters visiting and entertaining the ladies while they browsed.”
The store was more than just a place to buy jewelry; it was a gathering place for locals, a precursor to Starbucks, if you will. They insisted on providing their customers with a special experience each time they walked in and Earline was a stickler when it came to presentation.
“Earline was meticulous about how the store looked, how the jewelry was wrapped and even how she looked. She was always ‘put together,’ looking well dressed and extremely neat,” recalls Debbie.
That same attention to detail translated into gift wrapping. Early on Earline insisted on wrapping gifts in the most exquisite way with a large hand-made bow on top. She wanted the fine gifts from her store to have a ‘personal’ touch and no gift left the store without a Johnson Brothers’ bow on top.
It wasn’t long before the bows became as famous as the name. Many people in the small southern town didn’t consider it Christmas unless there was a Johnson Brothers’ bow under the tree. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, girls would line up outside the store to get their red or blue homecoming bows.
So well-known were the bows that Hardy set off for Walker Shipyard to create a mechanical bow maker. With a design he came up with himself, he returned with two ‘metal contraptions’ created just to make Johnson Brothers’ bows.
“Today our bows are as famous as our merchandise,” cites Laura Burrow, daughter of Debbie and employee of Johnson Brothers. “We will not let a gift leave our store without the Johnson Brothers’ bow on top. Sometimes during the busy Christmas season we’ll have a little back-up at the bow machines, but the customers don’t mind. The extra time it takes gives us a chance to visit and connect with our customers even more.”
Hardy passed away in 1987. Earline continued on with the store. She had added to their product line, carrying china, silver, baby gifts and even stationery. The couple, who’d never had children, had birthed, nurtured and cultivated their retail jewelry store together.
Earline did whatever was needed to keep the store running. Sometimes she would be in the back repairing watches if needed. She left her house at 5:30 am every day, including Saturdays, and worked until 5 pm every night. She continued to insist on attention to detail in every aspect, even unwrapping a gift to start over if the bow was incorrect. Regardless of her age she never showed up without looking her best, neatly appointed and ready for business.
This same drive is what brought the store back from devastation when Katrina hit their small town in 2005. Earline lost her home and the store in one fell swoop. Several suggested she shut down the store. Not one to be easily discouraged, she resolved to reopen as soon as possible, saying “people need a place to buy their pretty things.”
In less than two months Earline’s persistence paid off and Johnson Brothers’ bows sweetly adorned the tops of wedding gifts looking more beautiful than ever before.
“When Earline insisted the store reopen right away, we were skeptical it could be done,” recalls Debbie. “The store was completely gone. But when we delivered those wedding gifts with our bows on top it was almost magical. I truly believe it meant so much to the people of Pascagoula because it was a sign that things would return to normal.”
The Johnson Brothers’ bows became a symbol of hope for the community; a tangible beacon of ‘normal life,’ all thanks to the determination of Earline Johnson.
Sadly Earline passed away this past May at the age of 88. Described by the community as a “true lady,” she will be remembered as someone who loved “pretty things.” Her staff, which became her extended family, is now at the helm of the store and committed to maintaining the same attention to detail on which Earline would’ve insisted.