Little Cailyn Boykin, 10, is pushing a flat-bed cart that must be about twice her size. It’s the kind of utility cart you’d set a dishwasher on to pull around Home Depot, but here, at Toomey’s Mardi Gras store on McRae Avenue, she’s got it piled high with cases of beads, bags of squishy footballs and boxes of chocolate MoonPies. These are the trinkets or “throws” she and her family members are going to toss from their floats in upcoming Carnival parades.
“You throw what you want to catch,” Cailyn, who rides in the Floral Parade, explains. “Footballs are fun to throw and catch. Balconies are my favorite things to throw at.”
Cailyn has been shopping for throws at Toomey’s every year for the past 10 years. She’s 10. Her dad, Brian, is in a local krewe, or parading organization, and says he’s been coming for decades. He says every time he walks in he sees someone he knows. In the past hour, the Mobile residents have seen three familiar faces inside the 70,000-square-foot warehouse dedicated to Mardi Gras goods.
This is a common refrain from shoppers inside Toomey’s headquarters: Not only do they shop here, but so does everyone they know, and they’ve been doing it for generations. Today, the store — which sells thousands of different kinds of beads, masks, candies, costumes, medallions and toys — provides a colorful display of local history and is a 42-year-old testament to the city’s dedication to tradition, family and Mardi Gras.
‘Why do they need Mardi Gras beads in Des Moines?’
In the early 1970s, Mobile native Jack Toomey was a salesman in the dry goods business. As he traveled around the Southeast for work, the Mardi Gras enthusiast would collect shiny trinkets, candies and beads that reminded him of Carnival to bring home to his wife, Ann, and their seven children. The goods kept piling up, so Ann suggested they monetize the collection and turn it into a second source of income.
At first, they just peddled product out of their home, selling to friends and neighbors. When demand increased, including from total strangers knocking on their front door, they opened a seasonal retail shop, in 1978. Family friend Greg Zieman grew up in a “large Catholic home” adjacent to the Toomeys, and remembers the business having a lot of support from within the Catholic community specifically, which valued Lenten traditions and celebrations. He says it was a natural transition for Jack, who was a member of the church and a member of a famous mystic society.
“Many [parading] organizations used to be predominantly Catholic,” Zieman said. “Consequently, you have a member open up a Mardi Gras store and it’s going to grow by leaps and bounds. It just blossomed.”
The business continued to grow, opening in a 3,000-square-foot space downtown and offering a few dozen styles of beads and toys. In 1995 one of the Toomey children, Stephen, moved home to Mobile to help out. He had been working in the hospitality industry in Florida and North Carolina and had a vision to turn the business into something much bigger than his parents could comprehend.
One of the first things he did was create a website for the shop, toomeysmardigras.com, so Mardi Gras enthusiasts all over the country could browse the Alabama-based store’s merchandise. There were Mardi Gras organizations popping up in random pockets around the U.S., many founded by Mobile expats who wanted to buy throws from home, and Stephen knew how to capitalize on that. However, the internet as a sales platform befuddled Jack and Ann.
“When Mom and Dad first started with our website, they were always blown away by people ordering that way and were really taken aback by how much was going out via the website,” Stephen said. “They’d look at an order and say, ‘Why do they need Mardi Gras beads in Des Moines, Iowa? You need to find out what they’re using these beads for.’”
Stephen also figured out how to start importing directly from international manufacturers, lowering costs drastically. The beads business works on tight margins, so increasing their volume helped squeeze out more profit, he said. He started taking trips to China once or twice a year and attending trade shows, where he could see all of the latest toys and gadgets up close and before his competitors.
“We’ll see a product and we’ll say, ‘Hey, can you change the colors to fit our needs?’” he said. “You gotta go with your gut a lot of times with new product because you don’t have any sales to base it on.”
While he took the business international, Stephen was also careful to keep some aspects domestic. He brought his manufacturers to Mobile to see Carnival up close. And he required all of his shipping containers — carrying more than 1.5 million pounds of product each year — to come in through the Port of Mobile, as opposed to arriving in California and being trucked to Alabama.
In 2003, they moved into their current location, which now houses one of the largest inventories of Mardi Gras supplies found anywhere in the world. They also now have an outpost in the Mobile Carnival Museum and a seasonal shop on the Eastern Shore, which changes locations on a yearly basis. In 2020 it is in Spanish Fort. Toomey’s employs about 60 workers during the busy season.
“We’ve been blessed to have built up the business over the years,” Stephen said. “We just tried to surround ourselves with good folks.”
A family affair
Family friend Greg Zieman, who is now an oral surgeon residing in Mobile and Fairhope, can be found in Toomey’s on a regular basis, chatting with a cashier who attends the same church as him, or pushing around his grandson, Greg III, in a shopping cart. Zieman is in the same krewe as the Toomey men and values Mardi Gras as a non-raunchy Mobile tradition.
“Daddy used to always say, ‘it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on,’” Stephen said. “It’s so engaging. There’s something about throwing trinkets and beads and stuffed animals to kids and adults, complete strangers, that really kind of makes it so special. It’s funny, I think we could give people dimes to throw off the float and the people wouldn’t want it as much as they want a set of beads or whatever it might be flying off.”
While a shopping trip to Toomey’s is a must for local float-riders like Zieman, who buys throws in bulk, it’s also a place for casual revelers to pick up a few individualized beads and a fun tourist attraction for those passing through town.
Nakita Martinez made a road trip to Toomey’s from her home in Moss Point, Miss., with her mother, sister and daughter, Ida “Rosie,” 6. They had often driven by the big building and its colorful murals, but had never stopped until today. They were shopping for glittery face stickers to wear to a Mardi Gras parade in Gautier, Miss.
“Look, Mommy!” Rosie said, excitedly trying on a pink mask. She had also just declared her newfound love for chocolate MoonPies. Her mother giggled.
“We were amazed when we came in,” Nakita said. “I really wanted to take her [to a parade]. I just love them. I went when I was her age and I want her to experience it, too.”
On a busy day, the check-out lines will snake through the store, and Stephen said it’s amazing to see how diverse his customer base is and how they all seem to be in good holiday spirits.
“What’s so nice is the way Mardi Gras brings everybody together,” Stephen said. “You’ll look up and the line will be pretty long and we’ll have somebody from two different economic backgrounds talking. And it kind of just brings the town really together, much like down at the parades. Everybody gets along. It’s a beautiful thing.”
To Zieman, it’s a glimpse at what the city can become.
“For Mobile to thrive and grow, it takes all of us to have some skin in the game,” Zieman said. “All of our citizens to come together, not just politically but also socially. Not to sound corny, but that’s the Christian way.”
Staying afloat in the off season
At the end of February, when the last stray beads get pulled off of the power lines and people begin their Lenten detoxes, Toomey’s is already preparing for next year’s festivities. They’re ordering more of their most popular products and they’re meeting with krewes to help them secure their custom orders for the following year.
“There’s a lot of planning that goes into it,” Stephen said. “We’re always walking around and it’s like, ‘Gosh, we should’ve done this and that.’ It’s a never-ending process.”
Toomey’s also has many year-round customers, who buy merchandise for all kinds of functions and holidays. The shop carries shamrock beads for St. Patrick’s Day, American flag beads for the 4th of July and pigskin beads for football season. Resellers will also buy truckloads of beads to vend at events like the Gasparilla Pirate Festival in Tampa.
Custom, corporate orders are now a large part of their business model, as well. Toomey’s can take any design and turn it into a bead or put any logo on a trinket for casinos or brands like Southern Comfort or Hardee’s.
“We don’t really have an off-season as much anymore,” Stephen said. “It seems like hunting and fishing and Mardi Gras are almost recession proof.”
Stephen’s goal is to have the business set up so his son, also named Stephen, can move back and take it over one day. He’s currently studying at The University of Alabama.
“We’ve been around for over 40 years,” Stephen said. “We’re not going anywhere, knock on wood. It’s in our blood, much like Mardi Gras is in everybody’s blood down here.”
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