The days at Bert's Market start a lot earlier than the casual customer might think. From the time the last of the late-night crowd clears out, the third-shift get to work prepping for the morning. It starts with baking biscuits for the breakfast menu and brewing fresh coffee, which is free by the way, all day long. Because Bert's Market never closes. The owners couldn't even lock up if they wanted to — they don't have the keys. So as the groups of Folly Beach bar hoppers give way to morning commuters headed into the office and surfers looking to hit the waves at sunrise, another day starts at Bert's Market.
"We know it's going to be a good day if bananas and surf wax sell. We can tell when the waves are going because it's that steady stream of wetsuits and bananas and surf wax going out the door," says Omar Colon, who along with his wife, Julia, bought the store from his father-in-law in 2010. Located at the corner of East Ashley Avenue and Second Street, Bert Hastings opened Bert's Market in 1993. Before that time, the spot was formerly known as Chris and Jerry's convenience store. While Hastings may have handed over control of the store, he still plays an active role in keeping things going.
"Obviously Bert started creating a space that people felt really comfortable in, and we definitely want to maintain that community feeling of the shop. There was no huge conversation when passing the torch. We knew what Bert started and we had our own commitment to continue that on," says Colon. "He will chime in every once in a while, saying, 'Hey, I just listened to the weather radio, and there's going to be some winds this week. You might want to get some flashlights and batteries. Make sure you've got gallons of water.' So he's great in those little spots where he knows he'd be ordering something extra. ... He will chime in every once in a while if he sees something that we would otherwise miss. We enjoy him interacting like that because it's what he's done for so long."
In recent years, the market and all-purpose grocery has undergone a few changes and upgrades. In order to better serve the lunch crowd that starts to show up after 10 a.m., the owners have added more organic products, and the meats used in the deli are free of added hormones and antibiotics. It's around this time at midday that crews of construction workers step inside. Filling the market, they grab 75-cent hotdogs, something quick and inexpensive before heading back out. Once the lunch rush dies down, it's time to restock before commuters stop by to pick up the final ingredients for dinner that night and families arriving at their rental units show up for supplies.
Bert's Market has a little bit of everything, which is important because it caters to such a diverse crowd — from seasonal visitors to year-round residents. There's even a rack of guitar strings and other equipment for musicians gigging on the island who run into a last-minute bit of trouble before a show.
The bars on the island close up at 2 a.m., so Bert's sees its final influx of weekend and summer customers around 1:45 a.m. or so, making a few last-minute purchases before the market stops selling alcohol. Then, for an hour or an hour and a half afterward, a steady stream of foot traffic will shuffle through the shop, looking for a bite to eat on the walk back from the bars.
"It's sort of a tradition to make a stop in here and grab some late-night grub. So yeah, 2 or 3 in the morning is an interesting time to see. And most everybody, even though they are intoxicated, are well behaved," says Colon. "We have some really great late-night people, and the rapport is good in such a way that people feel comfortable coming in here in that state and know that they'll be taken care of. And sometimes we literally have to take care of people as far as getting someone a ride home or getting a hold of someone's family if they're not quite able to make it to the next stop."
It's clear that Bert's Market is a lot of things to a lot of different people. For many, it's their first stop of the day, for others, a final detour at night. For Omar and Julia's three daughters — with a boy on the way — it's both a school and the family business. Omar says his oldest daughter will be learning to work the register soon enough. If you're looking for the complete Bert's experience, there are even vacation rentals above the store. At Bert's Market, it's all about providing something unique for customers, no matter what part of the day you choose to stop by.
"That's what Bert created, and that's what we wanted to continue regardless of the cosmetic changes that we made. That is the store. That experience is the store," says Colon. "To have people come in and say, 'Boy, I wish we had one of those at home,' that's the biggest compliment because that means that even from where they come from they don't have something like this. That's how we know it's special. We own the store, but it's really the people who come here that make it. The store is that interaction, the meshing of the brick-and-mortar place that we provide, along with personalities that come in here."