J.J. Pierotich has helped his family souvenir business in Biloxi, Mississippi, survive and thrive over the last 50 unpredictable years.

June 24, 2023
J.J Pierotich has enjoyed a long career in the family souvenir business in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Photos: James Edward Bates Photography

A few steps from the pristine white sands of Mississippi’s Biloxi Beach, a 32-foot-tall shark head opens its jaws to reveal rows of jagged white teeth. Rather than run the other way, visitors to this Mississippi beach town welcome the predator as a portent of good souvenirs and gifts.

Made of fiberglass and wood, the massive shark structure on the pink and turquoise facade of Sharkheads is a local attraction, a beach landmark and a mecca for souvenirs and beach gear.

And while the first shark head opened his jaws for patrons of Sharkheads in the early 2000s, the Pierotich name has been synonymous with souvenirs since the 1970s.

Owner J.J. Pierotich recalls how his father Ron Pierotich started the souvenir business in 1973 when J.J. was still in high school, around the age of 17.

“We are Croatian and my dad always had businesses and worked hard,” he says, adding that his mother, Judy, always stood by him.

Humble beginnings

His father passed that strong work ethic along to J.J. who became involved with the souvenir business from the get-go. After Hurricane Camille in 1969, his father opened up a liquor store. People would come into the store with their shopping bags that said Souvenir City on them and that was the first souvenir store the family bought.

Sharkheads customers love entering through the shark’s mouth.

“And over the years, we grew and grew and had hurricanes and disasters, and every time we had a hurricane or disaster, we’d always come back stronger and better,” says Pierotich.

Throughout its history, the number of stores the family owned has fluctuated. In 1977, the family started a souvenir shop called T-Shirt City in a modest building that was once a gas station.

According to Pierotich, the souvenirs of those days were a far cry from what it has grown into today. “The tourism business is a unique business,” he says. “In the 70s people really weren’t wearing T-shirts, it was more like undershirts, and it was more novelties like sea shells and little craft items that would have the name of the town they visited. That all started evolving after 1973. In the 80s we had big conch shells out in front of our stores. That was before people were so conservative about taking conch shells from the ocean.”

Of course now visitors can buy just about anything you’d need or want from a store on the beach. The now renamed Sharkheads prides itself on carrying the largest selection of seashells and “Biloxi Beach” merchandise on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, along with beachwear name brands, including Hurley, Oakley, Quiksilver and Reef.

Specialty goods include pralines and homemade fudge in flavors such as cookies and cream, red velvet and amaretto chocolate swirl.

Customers can visit the airbrush counter to customize items from seasoned artists.

Airbrush artists on staff paint custom designs on shirts, hats, baseball helmets, skimboards, aprons and sand dollars. And, of course, there are sharks: shark wall art and T-shirts, shark stuffed animals, refrigerator magnets and more.

“We are very committed to southern hospitality,” notes Piertoch. “We employ around 50 people and we are open every day of the year except Christmas.”

A jawsome idea

As the business grew, the family bought adjacent buildings ultimately creating the megastore that is Sharkheads and it needed a unifying, dramatic entrance. In 2000, the shark gaped its mouth for the first time.
The shark that guests encounter today is not the first shark head to adorn the front of Sharkheads. The original shark was lost along with the rest of the store in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck.

It took several years to rebuild, this time at a higher elevation per new city construction codes. The now three-story, 28,000-square-foot store sits high above an open parking lot with U.S. Highway 90 on one side and the Biloxi West Beach Boardwalk on the other.

The previous shark mouth led to the store’s front doors, giving customers the illusion of stepping into a shark’s belly. Now the shark mouth abuts an exterior staircase and opens to an elevator. This sturdier version of Bruce, which measures 30 feet, has weathered the storms better than its predecessor. He became a social media star in 2009 when grainy security camera footage captured him swallowing waves churned up by Hurricane Nate.

A wide range of footwear and other apparel and accessories are available from top surf lifestyle brands.

“We consider our business like a form of entertainment,” says Pierotich. “For the children we have a big shark jaw underneath the shark head for them to crawl up. They get so excited, running through the parking lot and wanting to take a picture inside of it.”

Of course some of the children aren’t quite as enthralled. Pierotich has seen a few tears from frightened children over the years.

The shark isn’t the only reason families are taken aback. “They cannot believe all the products that we sell, and we are very competitive in our pricing,” he says.

There’s also the generational customers. “People have been coming here since they were kids and they’re bringing their children here, and some of them are grandparents,” he says.

Following in his footsteps

And it’s not just the visitors who are bringing multiple generations through the store. Pierotich’s own children are following in his footsteps. “It is really rewarding to have children who have grown up in the business and want to be part of the business,” he says.

Both his kids, Brent and Melissa, graduated from the University of Mississippi and came to work.“It was not a foregone conclusion, it was their choice. The only thing I told them is ‘no college, no job.’”

Peirotich also has a 6-year-old grandson, Patrick, and a 3-year-old granddaughter, Juliana, that he hopes will also be interested in the business someday. “Hopefully they’ll want to carry on the legacy of the business,” he says.

And as the family business celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023, it is looking at growing its business yet again with a second Sharkheads location. The property was purchased in 2018 and is across the street from Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi. Hurricane Zeta damaged the property soon after.

“People have been coming here since they were kids and they’re bringing their children here, and some of them are grandparents.” — J.J. Pierotich, Sharkheads

It also blew the windows out of the Pierotich’s Souvenir City store leading to an extensive remodel, which included the purchase of a 9,000-square-foot warehouse that will help accommodate the needs of all three stores. The new store will be called Sharkheads Downtown and Pierotich is hopeful that construction will start by the end of 2023.

Secrets to success

Through all the ups and downs over the last 50 years, Pierotich has learned a few things about being a successful souvenir retailer.

“You have to adapt to change, no matter what, and you have to get new merchandise every year,” he says. “And you have to change the store around. But most of all it is rolling up your sleeves and going to work. You have to be here every day and be part of it. I consider what I do my hobby, and we have a good team of people and we all put our ideas together.”

He also doesn’t take that success for granted. “I’m very humbled by what we have today and I am very emotional about it. We could have gone bankrupt after Katrina, but we chose to have enough courage to rebuild.”