Clyde Burris hardly sounds wistful as he walks through the old building where he sold liquor for 46 years. Burris Liquor Store has moved across the street, from the wood-paneled package store at 415 Meeting St. to the bright modern emporium at 418 Meeting, and the story of how it got there is a real estate dream come true.
"It's a fairy tale to me. I never even thought this would ever happen," Burris says. According to Burris, Hasmukh Patel, the CEO of Charlotte-based real-estate investment company Tara Investments, approached him several years ago about the prospect of building a hotel on the property Burris owned at the corner of Meeting and Reid streets. The land had only grown more valuable as the downtown hotel and restaurant boom crept northward on the Charleston peninsula. Burris agreed to let the company build on his property, but on his own terms.
For starters, Burris didn't sell the land. He says Patel's company signed a 99-year lease, with a scheduled rent increase every four years. "That'll put a lot of kids through college," Burris says.
But that's not all. Burris says Patel's company also agreed to buy land at 418 Meeting — at a price of $800,000, according to county records — and pay for the design and construction of a two-story, 6,000-square-foot new home for Burris Liquor store on the property. The now-open building, designed by Charleston-based Schmitt Walker Architects, features ample natural light and off-street parking, a rare commodity downtown.
And then there's the cherry on top of the whole deal: According to Burris, when the five-story, 165-room hotel goes up on his property at 415 Meeting, he will have a free suite for life on the top floor. He says he intends to live in it.
Patel, whose company was also responsible for the construction of the Holiday Inn next door at 425 Meeting St., did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but Burris says he didn't have to twist Patel's arm to get the deal. "I just told them this is what I want, and I have not yet varied one thing of what I've said. There was not any bickering back and forth. I wasn't all greedy, and they weren't all greedy, so it worked out really good," Burris says.
Entering his new store, Burris turns into a back hallway and takes the service elevator to the upstairs warehouse. At age 73, he takes the elevator not because he has to, but because he can.
"We didn't have hot water over there," he says, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at the old store. "No hot water in the old store — to an elevator. Ha!"
A self-proclaimed "Charleston fella" who grew up playing football in downtown parks, Burris married his high school sweetheart Sheila Burris (née Johnson) in 1962 and opened his store in 1968. He had completed some college courses at Mississippi State and Charleston's Palmer College, but he didn't have a degree. He had worked for a few years working as a grocery sales representative for Kraft Foods and as an employee of various shipping companies at the Columbus Street port. He saved his money from the shipping jobs, bought a few investment properties, and eventually purchased the old service station at Meeting and Reid that would become his store.
"I knew in hard times they're gonna buy liquor, and in good times they're gonna buy, so really it'll sell year-round no matter what," Burris says.
Burris' wife quit her job at the downtown cigar factory to work at the store, and Burris' mother Alice Burris also worked there. They were joined by Burris' business partner, Abby Rhea, who still manages the store today, along with Burris' son Kelly.
"When you work with your family, it takes a certain breed to do it, and I'm probably the hardest person in the world to work with I guess," Burris says. "My son, one thing's for sure, when I go home and I see him — he lives right down the street from me — we never talk about business. Never. I don't talk nothing about business when I'm at home."
Burris occasionally made the news in the early years of his store by fending off armed robbers and even, in one 1974 incident, chasing down three men who had robbed his store and detaining them until police arrived. (In a scrapbook next to a newspaper clipping about the incident, he has written in pen, "This is one reason I should need a commission by SLED.") He still carries a black handgun in his back pocket, just in case.
Over the years, Burris bought up property behind the original service station at 415 Meeting, eventually adding a party shop and further retail space that housed tenants, including The 3 Sisters restaurant and Alluette's Cafe. In the days when the city required liquor stores to close at sundown, he says bootleggers came in to buy liquor that they sold out of their houses after hours. He worked in the store six days a week and came in on Sundays to place shipping orders. Even today, with 12 employees, he says he comes into the store almost every day.
"Anybody that's got a business and they leave it for somebody else to run it, they're going to be unemployed. Things will happen, and you'll lose control of your store and employees will think that everything is free," Burris says. "When you've got good employees ... you can relax a little bit, but it's always smart to be near where the cash register is ringing."
Another key to his success? Building personal relationships with customers. In the early days of the store, he held crab cracks once a month in the store's fenced-in backyard. Today he has customers whose grandparents used to shop at the store.
On a recent weekday afternoon, days before his Nov. 14 deadline to move out of the old property, Burris took a walk through the building where he has worked almost every day of his life for 46 years. Passing through the storefront with its dusty checkerboard floors, he took down autographed photos of boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Ken "Jaw Breaker" Norton from the walls. He's had plenty of help moving his inventory across the street thanks to liquor company employees who pitched in, but a few personal effects remain. Still, even as he reminisces about working in the shop with his wife, who died in 2006, his eyes are clear.
From his perch atop the not-yet-built hotel, Burris will be able to see the church where he married his wife and, he assumes, the Charleston Harbor beyond it. He'll look down on land where his Doberman pinschers used to run around during work hours, on parks where he shot marbles as a boy. And when he wants to go to work, he'll be able to walk across the street into a store he owns but did not have to buy. Hard work has paid him dividends before, but never like this.
Stepping out of the dimly lit old Burris Liquor into a bright fall afternoon, Burris is greeted by a longtime customer who still parks at a meter on Reid Street. Burris points out the parking lot behind the new store and then shakes the man's hand.
"Take a look at it," Burris says. "And thank you so much."