If you've never been in the bookstore at 147 King Street, Andy Archie wouldn't blame you. He tells us as much when we admit that our Thursday afternoon visit is our first. Home of the Preservation Society's bookstore for 35 years, the corner building features big windows, exposed brick walls, and a twisting staircase just behind the cash register. It's a lovely space, but one that, without the right marketing, doesn't jump out as a retail store.
Archie, the store's director of retail operations since this past January, agrees — the space is great. It's how it was being used though, that Archie wanted to change. "When you go into a shop, that place should represent a locality. There were so many Charleston items in the store [before] that weren't actually from Charleston," he says. For example, you could buy postcards, drink coasters, and apparel featuring Charleston images — Rainbow Row, the Battery, horse carriages — that aren't made locally, or even regionally, for that matter. Today, it's a new scene.
"I'd never lived in Charleston, but I knew there had to be enough talent for us to represent," says Archie. He didn't want the Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization that recognizes and protects Charleston's historic places, to have just any old bookstore, featuring the same kinds of items in every tourist shop downtown.
"We're telling real stories of people who are here. Everyone's got their Lowcountry story," he says. One of Archie's favorite stories is that of Capers Cauthen, a Lowcountry wood worker and owner of Landrum Tables. Cauthen's tables, created from reclaimed wood, are gorgeous, but it's Cauthen's dad who Archie is more interested in. Why? Well, he bought the Preservation Society bookstore 35 years ago, and now his son's tables are for sale inside.
Walking around the store, which is carefully organized according to topic — recipe books alongside jars and bags of locally made foodstuffs — familiar items jump out at you. There are Brackish bow ties, which Archie says are the store's best seller. Bow ties in a bookstore? If it's local, that's A-OK with Archie.
Archie shows us how the store has led to collaborations between artists, like sweetgrass basket weaver Henrietta Snipe and handbag designer, Charleston Carry. The bookstore has been selling Snipe's baskets for almost 20 years now – a longstanding local connection on which Archie models the whole store's premise — and she has specially designed the handles of some of the Charleston Carry bags.
There are other familiar items: Finkelstein's toys, the Swurfer (a swing designed after surfboards), J. Stark leather bags, and more. The number of high quality products is promising, to be sure, but Archie gently reminds us that the space is, in fact, a bookstore. We head to the back of the store and sit on cozy couches; Archie offers a cup of King Bean coffee. "This is a reading room if there ever was one," he says, smiling as we look around the walls selectively stacked with books.
"They're not just pretty," says Archie, gesturing at a stand of coffee table-size books. "They're of interest." Archie's emphasis on all local everything shifts a little when it comes to books — he wants customers to be able to get their hands on classics and national titles, as well. "If there's something you're looking for, let us know," he says, adding that as long as a title is distributed by one of the bookstore's vendors and still in print, he can make a special order for a particular book.
Archie knows that sitting on a couch, drinking coffee, and thumbing through a book on Charleston architecture, is an indulgence. He admits that plenty of people will skip the whole bookstore thing just to save time online, buying whatever they need with one click on Amazon. But, at the end of the day, Archie, who has years of retail experience, including bookstores, under his belt, believes that people will want to have the couch and coffee experience. "It's a lot more fun to actually come in a store," he says.
As important as the store experience is, Archie, along with the store's retail assistant, Evan Farmer, want to make sure that customers make the connection between the bookstore and the Preservation Society itself. That's why one of the store's current window displays is images of homes that received the Carolopolis award this past year. The award, created by the society in 1953, recognizes achievement in exterior preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation of Charleston buildings.
The next window display will show prints from Elizabeth O'Neill Verner, the iconic 1920s and '30s Charleston artist, author, and lecturer. The Preservation Society has 10,000 of Verner's prints, and replications will be available for purchase.
With fall house tours on the horizon – the annual October tour of Charleston homes, history, and architecture is celebrating 40 years — the Preservation Society is gearing up for one of its biggest sources of revenue. The other big source of income? The bookstore. And that's something that Archie is cautiously optimistic about. For now he's going to keep doing what he thinks the bookstore does best, saying, "If you tell the story, people will appreciate that. It takes."