The customers hadn't traveled from Augusta, Ga., to Charleston specifically to check out Robert Jones' recently-opened Cambria Sports, but when they heard about a new retailer catering to rugby and soccer aficionados, they had to stop and take a look.
During the 20 minutes or so they spent in the store, Jones, a former police officer in his native United Kingdom, kept up friendly shop talk, hyping upcoming competitions at the College of Charleston and the Citadel as well as the amateur men's and women's rugby teams that play in the area.
There's not much room to cover in Jones' modest store on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard, but the shopping couple — recent converts to rugby — left with more than $90 in merchandise.
Starting a new business is always risky, but making the leap now — with the world gripped by a financial crisis and the timing of an economic recovery far from certain — would appear to be even more of a gamble.
"When you read about it, it's all doom and gloom, but it doesn't tell the whole story or the only story," Jones says. "Even in the best of times, I would have been intent on serving a niche market, and I think that's a strength in this economy." The appeal of Charleston's boutique shops and Jones' intent to stay small are also assets, he says.
According to Charleston County economic development officials, business is booming — at least when it comes to the issuance of new business licenses. Between Jan. 1 and April 13, 2009, the county issued a total of 823 business licenses, compared to 790 for the same period last year.
Those numbers represent new accounts, and include North Charleston, Awendaw, Rockville, Lincolnville, McClellanville, and other parts of Charleston County.
Jones' decision to bet on West Ashley came after several months of soul-searching and deliberate planning, along with one change in continents and two changes in career.
Though he'd hoped to continue his law enforcement career after moving to the states six years ago, post-Sept. 11 rules mandating that officers be American citizens quickly ended that dream.
He got into the car business, peddling Ferraris in D.C. Jones didn't like the work, but he did like customer service and began wondering about opening a business of his own.
Now, settling into one of two comfortable lounge chairs facing a televised soccer match, Jones says he found just what he was looking for when he arrived in Charleston last summer. The lifelong rugby and soccer enthusiast found a small, but dedicated band of like-minded locals, a professional soccer team — the Charleston Battery — and an actual, championship-quality amateur rugby team, the Charleston Outlaws.
More importantly, there was no store geared to meeting equipment and apparel needs of players. But just as he began to formulate his business plan and look at potential locations, the bottom fell out of the world economy and the recession began to take hold.
Credit had effectively dried up in the market, so a lot of his expenses came out of his pocket.
"(It's) a pretty expensive proposition when you're importing your merchandise from Europe and dealing with suppliers who don't have a lot of call for their products here," he says.
Jones also dove into researching possible locations. He settled on a strip of stores anchored by the Outback Steakhouse and Men's Warehouse not far from Citadel Mall. The anchor stores were both 15 years old, and other small retailers intended to renew their leases.
Jones named the store Cambria, from the Roman name for his native Wales.
Leaning back in his chair, Jones seemed relieved to have the preparations behind him and finally be up and running, assisting rugby fans and new converts.
The growing appeal for the sport over American pastimes makes sense to Jones.
"Baseball and football are both excellent sports, but both rely on a lot of equipment and on being able to pull together enough people to make an ongoing series of games viable," he says. "That's why a lot of people stop playing once they get out of high school or college."
With rugby and soccer, "people like me will be playing until our knees tell us we can't," Jones says.
Jones hopes his business will thrive once the recession is over, and that opening in the downturn will position him for success once the economy heats up again. But he's not just waiting for that day to come. Jones has been working with local college coaches to raise rugby's profile at local high schools.
"There's a lot of rugby here. It's just that nobody knows about it," he says. "Raising its profile will not only help the sport, and help my business, but it'll help make our local college teams even more competitive in the future."
Charleston's rugby image will soon get a spotlight with a July 4 match between the USA Men's team and Canada broadcast on ESPN2.
"It's an exciting time for the sport," Jones says. "And an exciting time to be in business in Charleston."