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Keeping Up With Granny Kardashian: Meet Mary Jo Shannon

Kris Jenner’s septuagenarian mother runs a children’s clothing shop near San Diego. She talks to Isabel Wilkinson about her life in the retail business, her personal style, and her ‘haven’ away from the Kardashian drama.

On Sunday Kourtney Kardashian gave birth to her second child, Penelope Scotland Disick. The press went wild—and there was instant speculation about the meaning of the name. “She is absolutely perfect!” Kourtney’s sister Kim wrote on her blog. “I am so excited to be an aunt again and can’t wait to spoil little Penelope.” The 2-day-old girl is the youngest member of the vibrant Kardashian clan—more than 70 years younger than her great-grandmother, Mary Jo Shannon.

Shannon, mother to Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner, is a tall, slender woman in her “mid-70s” who leads a quiet life in the sleepy beach town of La Jolla, just north of San Diego. She’s recognized occasionally on the street as the grandmother to the Kardashians and has appeared a few times on the family’s E! reality-TV show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians. She has been snapped alongside granddaughter Kim on several shopping trips.

But Shannon stays largely out of the limelight. When she greets me at her cozy store, Shannon & Co., the day before the Fourth of July, she looks elegant in a pair of high-waisted red pants and a Gucci belt, Ralph Lauren sneakers, a white T-shirt, and a blue-and-white-striped sweater—in theme, of course. There are no assistants or paparazzi, no publicists, and no fans. “Kids tear the place apart!” she says of her usual clientele.

A small mom-and-pop store she founded in 1980, Shannon & Co. is filled with light that streams through two big windows edged with Spanish tiles. Inside, circular racks are packed tightly with kids’ clothes, for boys as old as 7 and girls as old as 14. There is a miniature baseball jacket, pink pajamas printed with palm trees, “nana blankets” hand-knit by a friend, and a tiny fireman’s costume. The carpet, business cards, and notepads are all leopard print—a “family signature” since 1985, she says—and a large picture of Kim Kardashian at age 7 hangs on the wall.

“They grew up playing in the store,” Shannon says of her grandchildren, with a bright smile. “I recall Kim sitting on this very floor and counting money. She would sing, ‘Counting is the game, and money is my name,’ or ‘Money is my name and counting is the game.’ Something like that.”

Now things are different. Shannon’s granddaughters are larger-than-life celebrities, their every move chronicled breathlessly in the tabloids. “I keep up with them on text,” Shannon explains. “I’ll go, ‘So-and-so and you, really?’ And they’ll go, ‘No, M.J.’’ The latest rumors involve Kim and her relationship with Kanye West. Shannon, who saw West at Kourtney’s recent baby shower, calls the rapper “very charming and very sweet.”

“I was a little turned off at first because of what he did to Taylor Swift,” she says, “But they mocked it at the BET Awards—someone came out and interrupted him—which I thought was clever. I have nothing to fault him with.” But Shannon notes that Kim, who travels constantly, might not be cut out for life with a celebrity partner. “I know she likes to stay home and go to bed at night,” she says. “She’s not a big partier.” She pauses to reflect on the men Kim has dated. “So why is it these big celebrities all the time? They’re just on tour, concerts, athletes. She really needs to hook up with somebody that’s got her temperament.”

Born in Arkansas, Shannon enrolled in a charm school called Fashionality at 15. She became a model, and married her high-school sweetheart at the age of 18. But just like Kim’s 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries, they divorced after two months. At age 20 she had her eldest daughter, Kris, who, she says, inherited her knack for marketing and retail. Shannon remarried twice, staying with her last husband for 40 years, until he died in a car crash in 2003. And she has spent five decades in the retail business, running five stores since she began.

For her part, Shannon has purposely taken the back seat to all her family’s action. Sometimes, she says, she is stopped on the street. “Are you ...?” a woman once said to her at the DMV. “Uh-huh!” she said, and kept walking. Unlike the Kardashian drama, which plays out largely in Kris Jenner’s house, Shannon likes being alone. “You have this wonderful quality time to watch whatever you want to, eat whatever you want to, wear whatever you want to, and no one is going to tell you anything,” she says. “And if you feel like getting all dolled up and going out, you can do that.” But it is the business, she says, that “keeps me going. If I didn’t have the store, I would probably spend more time up [in Calabasas with family]. I want to keep my little house as my haven, because then you have some place to run to.”