It was a time before Ebay, Amazon and Etsy. Wal-Mart was holed up in northwest Arkansas and Target was just an insect repellent. Musicians sang without the help of auto-tune and electronic synthesizers had yet to replace the Hammond B3 organ. James Bond and Maxwell Smart were the only people capable of communicating on handheld devices. Hi-fi stereos and televisions were oversized pieces of living room furniture. We lived with rabbit ears and static, and all of the local radio stations signed off at midnight. The only way to see a rock ‘n’ roll musician perform was to attend a concert in person, or watch one of two of the weekly variety shows on one of the three available television channels. It was a time of low exposure and even lower information. We had walked on the moon two years earlier but the war in Vietnam still raged. Woodstock was in the rearview mirror and the death knell of all it represented – disco music – was still a half of a decade in the future. I was 10 years old and the most “exotic” business in my hometown – Beautiful Day – had just opened a few blocks from the campus of The University of Southern Mississippi.
Beautiful Day was the coolest store I had ever seen. It was filled with items that my mother wouldn’t let me own – black lights, waterbeds, beaded curtains and lava lamps. The Hattiesburg, Mississippi, of 1971 was a far different town than it is today. My mother called Beautiful Day “that hippie shop,” which made me love it that much more.
Several times a week I rode my bike the 2.3 miles from my home at 8 Bellewood Drive to the 2400 block of West Fourth Street to – what was to me at the time – the most interesting store on the planet. Beautiful Day had leather goods, lava lamps, T-shirts, beaded curtains, candles and all manner of apparati that I had never seen before. The room was dark, the music was loud and incense burned so thick in the air the fragrance lingered in your T-shirt hours after leaving the store.
I spent long stretches in Beautiful Day just wandering through that tiny shop, dreaming. It made me feel older. It made me feel cool. Most of my time was spent in the black light room thumbing through the posters. I was fascinated by black lights and always wanted one. My friend, Stan Hall, and I tried to make money one summer by coating regular light bulbs with blue spray paint but we could only find a few neighborhood kids who would shell out their hard-earned allowance for a product that didn’t have the same effect as the real thing.
I loved posters. They were my earliest exposure to art. The late 1960s and early 1970s were golden heydays for posters. Beautiful Day carried posters of Jimi Hendrix kneeling in front of his flaming guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival, Frank Zappa sitting on the toilet, the Beatles walking across Abbey Road, the Stones on stage, Roger Daltry with a death grip on his microphone cord while swinging the mic like a lasso at his side, scenes from “Easy Rider,” skulls, mushrooms, scantily-clad women and many of the Haight-Ashbury show posters from San Francisco. Picasso was alive, but the greatest artist, to my 10-year-old thinking, was Robert Crumb, and the first place I ever saw his Keep On Truckin’ poster was at Beautiful Day.
Beautiful Day was my earliest “birds and bees” experience. That small shop, which was “taboo” in my mother’s eyes, was my first exposure to anything sex-related, anywhere. The Beautiful Day black light room housed a large black-light poster of illustrated Kama Sutra positions. Near the end of my first decade of life I rode my bike there dozens of times, just to stand in front of that poster, trying to reconcile how all of “that” worked or might work one day.
The owner of the Beautiful Day, Vicksburg native and Southern Miss alumnus Sid Johnston, was one of the coolest people in town. A South Mississippi boy’s only exposure to the counterculture revolution – which was in the process of winding down everywhere except here – was on television sitcoms. Various episodes of the Beverly Hillbillies or Mannix, tried to seem hip and relevant, by showing scenes with “hippies” in them. Those scenes were always six or seven years behind the curve. Television hippies of 1971 really looked like beatniks of 1963. Network executives’ idea of cool could never be what was really cool at the moment. Sid Johnston, proprietor of the Beautiful Day, with his long, past-the-shoulder hair, beard, beads, jeans and sandals looked like the musicians I saw on the pages of Rolling Stone and Cream magazines. He was legit, he was the epitome of hip, and he owned the coolest store in town.
In the mid 1970s, local retailers bailed on downtown Hattiesburg when the Cloverleaf Mall brought its version of the new indoor shopping experience to Hattiesburg. Beautiful Day, though then located on what was the western edge of town, opened in the mall just across the hall from the movie theatre. The smell of incense battled the aroma of candy-coated popcorn, which wafted into the hallway from the Caramel Corn kiosk located next door.
By that time Sid’s younger brother, Mel – back from a two-year tour of duty in Southeast Asia, and also sporting long, past-the-shoulder hair, beard, beads, jeans and sandals – had joined the business. The two added a new component to their retail line-up: custom-built waterbeds.
Lesser stores would have been accused of selling out and going corporate with a move to a large shopping mall, but Sid and Mel – the “Beautiful Boys,” as they would become known – were too legit to ever be seen as “corporate” and maintained a loyal following throughout the golden age of that mall.
In the mid 1970s, my 14-year old fashion “look” consisted of black KISS T-shirts, bellbottom Levis and Earth Shoes or huarache sandals, all of which were purchased in the Cloverleaf Mall at Beautiful Day.
Mel still operates Beautiful Day. I dropped in on him last week. He has held up well. At 67 years old, he doesn’t look much older than he did in 1976 when I was buying KISS T-shirts from him. He is still one of the kindest and coolest people in town – a gentle soul with an altruistic heart. Like his brother, Sid, who passed away in 2010, Mel still has a full head of long hair late in life (a point of jealousy for this follically-challenged columnist). The shop, now in its fourth or fifth location, has aged, and the shelves aren’t as full as they used to be, but Mel is still there, and he has plans of adding new product lines in the coming weeks.
What I always admired about Sid and Mel is that they were such dedicated and hard-working businessmen. In stark contrast to the suit-and-tie, lawyer-and-banker crowd, Sid and Mel wore jeans, T-shirts and sandals and had long hair and beards. They looked that way in the 1960s and continued to pull it off into the 21st century. Their look has actually come-and-gone back in style a couple of times over the life of their business. I love that.
The Beautiful Boys were relatively clean-living counter-culture businessmen who were doing business as hippies in the Bible-belted Deep South. It didn’t come without repercussions from suspicious law enforcement members and local chamber members who were bothered by anyone who didn’t look or dress “as businessmen should.” But Sid and Mel won over several generations of this town’s youth who are now the ones running the show.
Beautiful Day is a place “of” its era doing business an era twice removed. They were the first in town to introduce waterbeds. They were the first in town to offer used records. They sold the coolest jeans and T-shirts for decades, and Mel is still on the front lines in the daily struggle that all local, independent business people endure, fighting the good fight against online retailers and big box stores from out of state.
As I talked about old times and the Hattiesburg of yesteryear with Mel, a single employee was stocking shelves and putting out Halloween inventory. Christmas might be a boon for most retailers, but Beautiful Day “owned” Halloween for several decades in this town before Wal-Mart and pop-up superstores changed the retail landscape.
As I said goodbye to Mel and walked outside the store toward my car, the lone employee had moved outside to a folding chair in the grass in front of the store. He was barefooted and playing a guitar to an audience of none overlooking US 49. It felt like a scene straight out of 1971. You’ll never see that at one of those pop-up superstores, I thought to myself. The more things change, the more grateful we are to those things that stay the same.