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Mary Elizabeth Colby, 1914 - 2007

Co-founder of Port O' Call gift stores, antiques dealer

January 19, 2008|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Mary Elizabeth Colby, who co-founded the Port O' Call chain of gift stores in Southern California and later transformed her interest in collectibles into one of the largest antique businesses on the West Coast, has died. She was 93.

Colby died Dec. 23 at a hospital in Westminster from complications of old age, said her daughter, Cheri Colby Langdell of Pasadena.

Port O' Call began in a tiny gray bungalow in Pasadena and grew into a 13-store chain that stretched from Lido Isle in Newport Beach to Twentynine Palms in the Mojave Desert.

The stores were sold in the early 1970s, but Colby went on to promote antiques collecting by lecturing, operating antique stores and working as an antiques appraiser.

"She loved being with the customers," said Ruth DeNault, a longtime friend. "Selling antiques to her customers was a joy to her."

Born Mary Elizabeth Reid on July 31, 1914, Colby grew up on Shady Brook Dairy Farm in Scottsburg, Ind. She studied journalism at Indiana University and graduated in 1936.

In the late 1930s, after marrying, she moved to California and first settled in Santa Monica. She found work at Robinson's department store, and by the time World War II ended she was a buyer for the store.

At a time when such occupations were held mostly by men, she traveled throughout Europe on purchasing expeditions, Langdell said. She told stories of voyages on the Queen Mary and journeys by train through war-ravaged countries, whose factory owners welcomed the chance to sell their goods, Langdell said.

In 1957, Colby and her second husband, Edward Pendleton Colby, founded Port O' Call on Granite Drive in Pasadena. The store offered contemporary California gifts and crafts and later sold clothes. With its themed rooms -- all piggy banks in one, all hand-painted candlesticks in another -- the store was an experience.

"People loved the excitement of moving from room to room and finding something different every time," Langdell said.

The original store soon became part of a cluster all under the Port O' Call umbrella. The main store was joined by another next door that offered gifts from other parts of the world. There was also Penny Port, which offered low-priced gifts. The Huntington Hotel was home to another boutique.

During holiday seasons, customers came into the store and had a cup of sherry tea, a longtime tradition at Port O' Call, which was known for its Christmas spirit.

In the early 1970s, the Colbys sold the chain and agreed to leave the gift store business as part of the deal, Langdell said. But in San Clemente, where the couple moved in the 1970s, Colby embarked on other business ventures, this time specializing in antiques.

On an August day in 1979, two thieves entered Colby Antiques of San Clemente and made off with an exquisitely handcrafted Persian rug worth $11,000 that was in the shop on consignment.

In the days before the theft, the Iranian government had imposed a ban on Persian rug exports. Just weeks before the shah of Iran was deposed, the wife of a high-ranking official had smuggled the rugs out of the country. The rug stolen in San Clemente was among those.

"He came to this country without a coat on his back," Colby told The Times in a 1979 article. "If he hadn't had his wife carry those rugs out, they never would have made it here."

Colby, who earned a reputation as a sharp businesswoman, also established the 7,000-square-foot antiques emporium known as Colby Galleria, which she later sold.

After closing her last antique store in 2002, Colby donated an extensive personal collection to Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens in San Clemente. The collection includes items that early Americans might have brought with them from Europe or had in their homes. It tells a story of America, said DeNault, vice president of Casa Romantica. Colby donated the collection so the public, especially young people, could "understand the beauty and value of antiques and collectibles," DeNault said.

In addition to Langdell, Colby is survived by a stepdaughter, Frances Berry Welker of Hamilton, Mont.; grandchildren Melissa Langdell of Berkeley and Sebastian Langdell of Austin, Texas; and step-grandchildren Rainy Kemp DeLauder of Hamilton, Mont., and Steven Kemp of Los Angeles.

Memorial donations may be sent to Camp Stevens, P.O. Box 2320, Julian, CA 92036 to be used for the rebuilding of portions of the camp destroyed by fire in 2007.

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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