It's a January afternoon, and the median age of the panel currently set up in the College of Charleston's Jewish Studies building is 70. In total, there are 11 men seated at the front of the room. The youngest is in his 60s, the oldest is in his 90s, and they all know each other. As the men introduce themselves one by one, the audience can check off the familiar names: Bluestein. Berlin. Sokol.
All of the men at some point in their lives have worked on King Street. They were proprietors of a variety of businesses, or they were the sons or grandsons of owners and spent part of their teen years helping out their elders, long before places like Anthropologie and Forever 21 even existed.
These are the "Kings of King Street," as they're described in the panel's introduction. They were tailors and jewelers or owners of furniture and formal wear stores. The men talk about their daddies in their Southern accents while dropping Yiddish slang. They can reminisce on the golden days of the strip, back when King Street was a ghost town on Jewish holidays, back when King Street worked a certain way. The Jews owned the furniture, jewelry, and clothing stores, the Chinese owned the laundries, and the African Americans owned the barber shops.
Their own children and grandchildren became lawyers, doctors, accountants, but a few stuck around to take over the family business. And some are still in their stores every day, or have passed them on to their children, or they plan to.
The air in the packed room smells of coffee and deli. The audience is made up mostly of older members of Charleston's Jewish community, who aren't afraid to shout at a panelist when he needs to adjust his volume. But camped out in the first few rows is a new generation, long separated from the Kings, who are all students in Dale Rosengarten's "King Street as a Classroom" course. They're here because they're Jewish Studies, historical preservation, and history majors eager for an interesting credit.
Still, there's a lot that can be learned from this panel, and not just in the classroom setting. With so many chains open on King Street, it can be easy to overlook the current crop of family-owned businesses. And to ensure that the King Street of today thrives just as it did a hundred years ago, these stores should take some tips from the Kings.
The January panel was put together by Rosengarten, a curator in the special collections at the CofC's Addlestone Library. This is the first time her King Street class has popped up in the school's course listings since 2001, and when an Atlanta-based daughter of a King Street merchant learned that Rosengarten would be teaching the class this semester, the woman recommended doing an oral history project on the King Street merchants.
"I thought, you know, she's right," Rosengarten says. "The time is now. These guys are old and things are changing so fast there's hardly any of the old timers still on the street." And while her students are learning archiving techniques and historical contexts, King Street also offers more important lessons on running a business.
Nicky Bluestein, owner of the blue-hued building and menswear shop on the upper stretches of King, was one of the panelists. He also helped Rosengarten put the whole thing together. "I didn't know most of those guys. I knew who they were, but I didn't know them personally," Rosengarten says. "They need to be asked by someone they know and by someone they probably owe favors to." That's where Bluestein came in.
Bluestein's was founded sometime between 1883 and 1885 — the exact date is a little cloudy, because no one's sure exactly when Nicky's great grandmother moved to Charleston from her Georgia home. She was a peddler, and in 1907 she bought the building at 494 King St. that we know as Bluestein's today. His grandfather restored the space in 1913, combining it with the Charleston single house next door. Bluestein's thrived for decades until a 1987 fire burned down every part of the store except for the facade. It wasn't easy replacing Bluestein's signature blue bricks when they cost $45 a pop, but the shop still stands today.
"As kids, we always worked here," Bluestein says. "We were 12 years old and we came in here and we worked. By 14, my father would go on buying trips and I'd run the store." At the time, he just wanted to make money, but he knows it was a good experience — which is why he made his three sons do the same, even if they eventually all grew up to become attorneys. "You learn how to deal and how to talk to people, how to manage business affairs and so forth."
Farther up King, Charles Goldberg spent some of his teenage years working at his father's shop, Goldberg's Men's Store. Today, the space is home to Peking Gourmet, but you can still see the family name on the entrance tiles to the Chinese restaurant. Goldberg was not only a participant on Rosengarten's panel — he's also auditing the class.
Goldberg says that even though businesses like his father's were in competition with each other, a camaraderie still existed among them. The store owners all came from a common immigrant background, and the trials and tribulations they faced before immigrating and the reality of starting over in a new country influenced how hard they worked to achieve their goals. "The reason, I believe, those stores still exist is because in each one of them, children and grandchildren stayed in the business," he says. "Their customers like the consistency and obviously felt a sense of confidence in remaining with the same business."
That's why Bluestein takes full credit for his store's longevity — he was there to make sure that it survived. When the Upper King neighborhood started to change in the mid-20th century, Bluestein's started catering to a new African-American clientele. That helped the business last longer than some of its counterparts. And it also doesn't hurt that Bluestein owns his building. That's not something many new businesses can say, and many are at the mercy of their landlords. "If you didn't own the property, you probably couldn't have made it," he says. "I think that has a lot to do with it. You're your landlord."
Bluestein is still in his shop most days and knows plenty about his regular customers and their specific needs as soon as they walk through the door. Unfortunately, he doesn't see that kind of close attention lasting much longer in the future of retail.
"Growing up as I did in the business, you develop relationships with people," he says. "Those people are customers. Today, there's not that personal touch when you go into a store. The philosophy my daddy taught me was two things basically: He said be honest beyond a question of doubt, and always treat people the same way that you want to be treated."
Now Bluestein is watching as the area around him changes. Just across the street, a new restaurant is going in, and he's not entirely happy about that. "If the retail aspect is going to survive on King Street, you need businesses that open during the day and not bars only at night," he says. "Competition is good for businesses. I would love to have more competitors. You just put the customers on the street and I'll get more of my share. Competition just brings people to areas."
The family-owned businesses on King Street today don't operate the way they did 100 years ago. You might not see someone's 14-year-old son or daughter working behind the counter after school. Nowadays, they have to deal with rivals off the peninsula, at the malls and shopping centers of the suburbs. And, of course, there's online competition and social media marketing. Fortunately, today the area's businesses can rely on the King Street Marketing Group for some help in that respect.
In 2006, Susan Lucas was the owner of a photography business on Upper King. Like most businesses in the area, she wasn't able to afford the traditional marketing that larger stores could. So she started going door-to-door to visit her neighbors. "It was born out of need, but it turned out to be the way marketing is done now," she says. "Collaboration is always good, and it was just perfect timing for that."
Lucas created a website and directory that has since grown to cover the entire King Street shopping, dining, and entertainment districts, from the antiques sector to the upper reaches. "We think of ourselves as the mall manager, because it's a way that an area with hundreds of different owners and hundreds of different leases, and they're totally not related by anything but district, can band together and get attention as a district," she says.
Every business on King Street is represented on Lucas' site (susanlucas.typepad.com/kingstreetmarketinggroup) with a page featuring basic details like location, contact information, and website. They can pay more for additional attention from Lucas, like detailed descriptions and featured blog posts and articles.
Additionally, businesses can opt to participate in the VIP passport program, which provides guides to tour groups that list special events and specials, or Let's Do Lunch, which showcases a different local business each month. The King Street Marketing Group also hosts the monthly Second Sunday on King, and it brings businesses together for major collaborative events, like February's SEWE King Street Stroll. Even the big chain stores on King have taken notice of the group's effect; Banana Republic and Brooks Brothers, companies with advertising budgets that require national approval, have joined up.
Ultimately, King Street Marketing Group is trying to build a community, and that was a major reason why the Scout and Molly boutique joined it when it opened a few years ago. When Scout & Molly's co-owner Sarah Johnston moved to Charleston in 2011, she knew she wanted to open up a franchise of the North Carolina-based boutique with her husband and her mother-in-law.
"We definitely did our research for where on King Street and wanted to make sure that this was the right place, but with the foot traffic, it's kind of like built-in people," she says.
They ended up at 377 King St. near the corner of Calhoun Street, and the King Street Marketing Group has helped Scout & Molly's get involved. So far, the store has participated in events like the SEWE Stroll, and they've even developed relationships with other stores, like Campo Marzio. "It's a great networking tool, and really just allows different businesses on King Street to come together and come up with different ideas and talk about things that work, that don't work, and really just pull off of each other," Johnston says. "When the King Street Marketing Group did the big pet adoption push, we actually held one of the opening events for them the night before it started. It's things like that to get our names out ... Anything that we can continue to do to get ourselves involved in the community, that's what's important to us." With a baby on the way, it's possible that Johnston may pass her store on to a new generation.
Down the street, Johnston's thoughts are echoed by Blane Sommer, who owns Magnifilous Toy Emporium (525 King St.) with his wife Nancy. They arrived in Charleston last year with the hopes of opening a toy store, and they knew they wanted to be on the strip.
"We had spent three months during the summer looking for places, and we actually narrowed it down between that particular property and one at the opposite end," Sommer says. "We were very much excited about what was happening in the Upper King Street area, and we basically came down looking for energy. We really liked being close to the college, and with everything that's being proposed up there, we really liked that. It was all about the energy."
But while he loves the vitality of Upper King, he admits it could use some more retail options, especially stores that can appeal to families.
"Obviously, we're very heavy with the bars and restaurants, and all I can tell you is the owner at the time we signed our lease turned down 31 other offers, because he was holding out for a family business that didn't have anything to do with food or beverage," Sommer says. "We were thrilled that he was interested in us, because it had been vacant for a year and a half since Maine Cottage was there. He stuck to his guns and obviously was happy with what we had to offer."
It's now spring, and the King Street class is almost over.
For one of its last meetings, Dale Rosengarten brings in Charleston's biggest VIP, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., to talk about the development of King Street. The crowd isn't as large as it was for the Kings of King Street panel, but the seats are still mostly filled with members of the community, many of whom could surely remember the King Street of the past, one blighted with empty lots and a decrepit Marion Square. Though King Street thrives today, in part because of the family-owned businesses that have anchored it for decades, it wasn't long ago that the area needed help. Riley has made it his duty to rehab the strip during his mayorship, a process he says happened organically.
"The reason that you work hard on King Street is that it is the public realm," he says to the room. "Many of us are old enough to understand that here in Charleston. It's a part of the city that everybody feels ownership in. It's a place where you go and the streets and sidewalks are filled ... there's a sense of citizenship, and everyone owns it the same."
After his presentation, Mayor Riley opens the floor to questions. One of Rosengarten's students asks what he thinks the biggest threat to King Street is. Mayor Riley takes a moment to consider his answer:
"Too many bars on Upper King Street."
The audience reacts with applause and laughter. If Nicky Bluestein and Blane Sommer were there, they would have agreed. In a phone call a week later, Mayor Riley admits there was a jocular subtext to his answer.
"The fact that there are restaurants and bars there is very positive because it means it's a place people want to be," he says. "With that energy, then follows the retail."
He remembers the days 15 years ago when the strip between George and Calhoun was the ultimate nightlife destination on King Street. Back when the City Paper wrote a cover story on the area, the city was in a tizzy about the bars' effect on the area. But if you look at it now, there are thriving day-time businesses, both locally and nationally owned, nestled between Boone's and the Kickin' Chicken and Upper Deck.
Upper King Street may see the same kind of evolution in the near future. Mayor Riley says it's gradual; the bars and restaurants are just the first step to a thriving King Street. "In an inner city where there's positive momentum, which is a continuing process of revitalization and restoration, that's a fluid process," he says. And pioneers like Magnifilous Toy Emporium and Bluestein's, as well as companies like PeopleMatter, which recently opened a massive office building, can help lead the way.
"Right now, on King Street, Line to Broad is 93.1 percent occupancy," Mayor Riley pointed out, and that includes a healthy mix of locally owned shops, chain stores, bars, and restaurants. There are major chains and small businesses, and it's up in the air which will survive the long haul.
Think about it: Bluestein's has outlived S. H. Kress & Co., Woolworth's, and even Abercrombie and Fitch. With a little bit of chutzpah, the families on King Street today may be there for generations to come.