Years before anyone dreamed of a place called BayWalk, before downtown St. Petersburg had a Starbucks, before high-rise condos sprouted along the waterfront, locals knew the intersection of Beach Drive and Second Avenue N as "Fashion Corner."
If you were a woman of means, it was where you went for the latest suits, dresses, gowns and accessories. The corner thrived as a destination for more than 50 years, catering to seasonal hotel guests and residents from close-in addresses like Snell Isle.
Frances Stockton inhabited that world, became a fixture in it for 40 years as a salesperson — first at Carol Beecher's dress shop, then at Le Pavillon and finally at John Baldwin Fashions, which later became Coplon's.
"You could look out on any day and Beach Drive would be filled with people," Mrs. Stockton told the St. Petersburg Times when Coplon's closed in 2004.
She died early Friday at Bayfront Medical Center after a battle with ovarian cancer. She was 64.
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Somehow, the title "salesperson" fails to capture what she did and what she was to the people who knew her.
As they describe it, she was an adviser, confidante and friend, a picture of style and dignity, an honest broker.
"Frances took care of you. She loved dressing you. She always wanted to make you look great," said Suzanne Fisher, her boss at Coplon's and a longtime friend.
"She cared about you too."
Many salespeople will tell someone she looks great in an outfit, Fisher said. If Mrs. Stockton didn't like it, she said so.
Women would come in and she would say she knew their mothers or had dressed their grandmothers, Fisher said. "She knew a lot, a lot of people."
So much so that she knew what people were wearing to big events, and could ensure that no two customers wore the same thing. If someone picked an outfit that another client had already chosen, Mrs. Stockton subtly steered them to something else.
"That was part of the finesse," Fisher said.
The daughter of a cook and a housekeeper, she grew up poor but said hers was a happy childhood in St. Petersburg.
After graduating from Gibbs High School, she married in 1961 to Thomas C. Stockton, a Gibbs social studies teacher 12 years her senior.
They had two daughters, and Mrs. Stockton stayed at home for the first few years of her marriage. In 1966, seeking to bring more money into the house, she learned through a friend that Carol Beecher's dress shop needed seasonal help in the stockroom.
A six-week stint turned into 38 years on Fashion Corner.
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She arrived at a precarious time, an African-American woman in an elite white world while her peers were working in the back rooms of restaurants or as domestic servants.
But she bridged the two worlds with ease.
She had a wide circle of prominent black friends and knew many white people of means in St. Petersburg.
"I hope people perceive me as I perceive them," she said in 2004. "I see people as people, not in colors."
She also remembered that when men would call her with plans to buy a gift for their wives, she would contact the wives.
"The men would want things to fit," Mrs. Stockton said. "So the wife and I would secretly pick things out together, and she'd act surprised when she opened the box."
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8923.