Some businesses come and go like the wind. Others not only survive but stay alive and prosper despite enduring one obstacle after another. Barbara, an upscale boutique on South Padre Island, falls in the latter category.
The shop, owned by Remedios Villarreal, has been in business for nearly half a century and has been doing remarkably well after all those years. “I am still running Barbara,” she said. “It was 47 years ago when the store opened.”
Barbara first opened its doors in Matamoros, the Mexican border city across from Brownsville, on Alvaro Obregon Avenue, where the shop catered to an upscale clientele that included many of the elite from both sides of the Rio Grande and beyond.
Among them were the late Gladys Porter, members of the Yturria family, the Russells and Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson, who was First Lady of the United States at a time her husband Lyndon B. Johnson served as the 39th president. Another customer who stopped at Barbara in Matamoros was actor Tommy Lee Jones, a longtime friend of the late Frank Yturria.
The shop operated across the river from 1972 to 2010, selling refined Mexican curios and works of art from the likes of Mexico’s famous sculptor Sergio Bustamante.
Because of uncertainties in the Mexican economy and its violent drug trade, Villarreal and her partner, named Barbara, decided to expand their operations on the north side of the border and chose South Padre Island.
The Island, known by some people as Little Monterrey, or Monterrey Chiquito, because of the many affluent Mexicans from that industrial city in Nuevo Leon who visited and invested there, was an ideal location.
In fact, it’s often said that people from Monterrey were major contributors to the growth and development of the Island as a tourist destination, with many of them owning property and spending their vacations there.
Barbara opened its second store at the Island in 1986, and has been there ever since. As the new shop gained a foothold in the United States, the Matamoros store remained open for a number of years. Eventually, Villarreal said she bought out her partner and the business’ namesake, closed the Matamoros store and concentrated on the new boutique on the Island.
She said 75 percent of her clientele comes from Monterrey and the rest from the United States. But once here, she had to expand her line of products and began making annual trips to Las Vegas to attend trade shows featuring products about to hit the market.
In Las Vegas she found a line of swimwear called Gottex and hats by Helen Kaminski, brands popular in upscale stores like Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. Those and other brands have become staples at the Island store.
Villarreal said business has been good, despite the ups and down of the Island tourism economy, which gets slow during the winter, picking up in the spring season until the peak months of June through August.
Villarreal points to two big events that created the roughest time doing business on the Island: the 2001 partial collapse of the Queen Isabella Causeway and Hurricane Dolly in 2008.
“There was hardly any business after the bridge closed,” she said. “It took about three months to repair the span.” Seven years later, Hurricane Dolly caused extensive damage to buildings and created flooding like had not been seen in years.
Today, the upscale shop keeps on catering to a faithful clientele and still sells a few Bustamante pieces of art, among other things. “I kept the name Barbara.” Villarreal said. “It sounded better than Remedios (or remedies in English).”