The Attack of the Shell Shops

They're the coastal version of the Big Box stores and they're taking over the beach. The demand for shells and t shirts and beer bongs is out of control. Otherwise, why is there a megasized building the size of a city block every hundred feet along Padre Blvd. on South Padre Island? You know the places. They've got names like Waves, Mirage, Surf, Swirl, and Undertow. Some kind of gigantic sculpture of a shark or octopus hovers over the front entrance. Signs beckon passersby with too good to be true deals like 5 T shirts for $10, 3 beer bongs for $5. or boogie boards for $1.99 that turn out to be in fact too good to be true. And inside, there are aisles and aisles of swim suits, t shirts, fake tattoos, ornaments, trinkets, boogie boards, surf boards, thongs, sandals, beach gear, sand buckets, shovels, sunglasses and the like. And although there's a lot of stuff and literally dozens of stores like that, the merchandise is all pretty much the same. These are not Mom & Pop shops, but corporate entities operating on the Bigger is Better/Too Much Ain't Enough premise, beach retail gone Hummer. And they're spreading faster than Oxycontin. Over the past five years, several have popped up in Port Aransas, their SuperSize scale completely overwhelming the Port A village streetscape and effectively crowding out familiar longstanding businesses like Pat Magee's.

This week, leaving Padre, not far from Little Graceland, I thought I found the source of these watery Wal-Marts. About five miles east of Port Isabel towards Los Fresnos on Highway 100 is the new home of US Shell, the Mother of All Shell Shops, a megawarehouse with not one giant sea scuplture out front, but an entire tableau, suitable for souvenir photo ops, fronting a 126,000 square feet building large enough to house several football fields--all the shells and t shirts a modern society could ever desire.

US Shell claims to be the World's Largest Importer, Exporter, and Distributor of Shells, Nauticals (preserved sea horses, anyone?), and hermit crabs (so that's where they all went). US Shell imports over 100 tons of shells a week, which sort of explains all those mega stores. Shells need to be stored somewhere. What happens to the overstock is a mystery. Maybe there's a Big Lots of shell shops in a faraway outlet mall. Then again, there's always demand for road base.

But it turns out US Shell, founded by Capt Bud Harris in Port Isabel in 1950 and operated by four generations of Harrises, only owns two stores on SPI. Meaning there's competition, cutthroat competition out there willing to build bigger sea creatures than ever out by the highway to lure innocents to the joys of shell ashtrays and puka necklaces.

For better or worse, these Jumbo Shelleries are now an ingrained part of the Padre experience, twisted recognition SPI has arrived as a destination. So I am disappointed then again twistedly pleased to report the $1.99 boogie board advertised by the road was big enough to support a Chihuahua, if not a terrier.

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