Trading Spaces 

What's in store for the Upper King Design District?

Encompassing the area north of Calhoun Street, the Upper King district is changing fast. Over the course of the last decade, it's grown from an ailing part of town to one of Charleston's funkiest, most youthful areas.

But the winter of 2008-'09 has not been kind to Upper King. In the last few months the area has said goodbye to many of the small businesses that gave it its uniquely local flavor: Global Awakening, B'Zar, MaxJerome, Trusted Palate, M. Craig, and rLee Collection. Store owners and shoppers alike worry about the future of the area.

Is Upper King reverting back to what it was just a few years ago, a part of town populated by a series of bars and a few less-than-luxurious store fronts? Or is it just growing, changing into the upscale design district that many have been hoping it would one day become?

On a recent midweek trip to Upper King Street, there were no shoppers to be found in the stores, just a homeless man making the rounds asking for money. In most shops, the owners sat behind the counter, waiting for someone to come in, and more importantly, waiting for someone to actually buy something. When asked how they were doing considering the economy, most gave a tight-lipped smile and said, "We're fine."

click to enlarge Andrea Serrano's (above) B'zar is nearly cleared out; Michelle Nemeth (below), with her daughter ava, in front of the store formerly known as Wonderland - PHOTOS BY KAITLYN ISERMAN
  • Photos by Kaitlyn Iserman
  • Andrea Serrano's (above) B'zar is nearly cleared out; Michelle Nemeth (below), with her daughter ava, in front of the store formerly known as Wonderland

This was the answer given by Michelle Nemeth, co-owner of children's boutique Wonderland.

"We are doing just fine," Nemeth said. "We've been open 15 months, and we've done well. Obviously that can change any day. January has been abnormally slow for us. We've not had a month like this since we've been open."

Two days later, we got word that Wonderland was closing. Less than two weeks later, the place was cleared out ... and a new store selling bathroom fixtures was moving right on in.

In a sad bit of irony, Nemeth had predicted the store's unfortunate future the day of our initial interview. "If you don't have the comfort of having been open for many years and having the ability to weather the lean times, then you go under much quicker," Nemeth had said. "The mom and pop stores like me and all the other stores you see closing are always the first to go. We don't have a corporate office that can cut things in other places or close other stores. This is it."

After making the decision to close, Nemeth says she was just as surprised as everyone else at how quickly it happened.

"Things can change really quickly when you own a retail business, and that's just what happened with us," she says. "With the grim retail outlook predicted for the next year and half combined with the fact that we were under-capitalized from the start, it just created this perfect storm of sorts.

"We had record-breaking numbers the last four months of the year and were confident that would carry through early 2009," she adds. "But being a small independently-owned boutique, we didn't have a line of credit or cushion to cover lean times. ... The local experts say retail isn't expected to rebound until summer 2010. That's a risk our pocketbooks couldn't take.

"Unfortunately, we will not be the last casualty of great, unique, local stores being forced to close the doors in these tough economic times."

Andrea Serrano, who co-owns the New York-style boutique B'Zar with her husband Gustavo, expressed similar concern for the smaller locally-owned businesses. B'Zar will close at the end of February, after four years in business. The shop was one of the trailblazers back when the area was in the midst of being revitalized, thanks to the early efforts of stores like Dwelling and Magar Hatworks.

click to enlarge wonderland.jpg

"What saddens me is, not only is this an end of an era for us, but it's just one less retail store on King Street, and I know that so many stores here have closed down or are planning to close down," Serrano says. "The people who are going to survive are the people who have a lot of money, the chain stores, the franchise stores, the people who don't depend on King Street to make their money. It will be really interesting to see what happens in the next few months."

The economy was the main factor behind the couple's decision to close their store.

"All the stressful elements kind of weren't worth it anymore, in terms of the decline and people not spending their money as much as they did before. We just had to make a decision for our family," Serrano says. "For us, we saw it as a high risk, and we wanted to get out before it got too bad."

Serrano blames the media for people's penny-pinching habits.

"I think that the media has brainwashed and scared the crap out of people not to shop, and that's been a domino effect, because people aren't shopping, their jobs are being laid off. Not just in retail, but in production," Serrano says. "Yeah, people need to save their money and think about the future, but at the same time, people need to spend their money. They have to still go out and do the things that they did before, but maybe hold back a little bit."

Suite Sole, the Serranos' sneaker boutique on Spring Street, will remain open. They plan to take their B'Zar operations online.

Nearby fair-trade store Global Awakening also closed its doors and will go online exclusively.

"We have a unique situation," says owner Maren Anderson. "We get all of our products from Third World countries, and a fair wage goes back to help make a difference, and we feel like going to an online store instead of a storefront allows a lot more flexibility to hopefully keep our prices lower as well as reach a larger customer base.

"Namely we're closing because we want to get out before we have to, and right now we can get out while we're ahead."

Selling stationery, gifts, and handmade furniture, Lesesne sits in the midst of many of the closing shops, but despite slower sales, their doors remain open.

"We're doing about as good as can be expected up and down," co-owner Barbara Lesesne says. "We just know historically in retail that winter tends to be slower. There are a lot of different factors for different people, but we're just happy to still be here."

Still, Lesesne thinks that some things could be done to help Upper King business owners. Safety is one issue that she thinks needs to be addressed.

"We've written letters about having patrolmen put up here," Lesesne says. "We had a police blitz for awhile, two weeks perchance. And they were coming in the stores and everything, but really we just wanted them on the street in uniform. That to me would send out a nice message to people to come out and shop when they know they're not going to have people asking them for money."

After suffering several shoplifting incidents at Wonderland — including one where she chased the person down while her young daughter waited behind the counter — Nemeth agrees that crime is still an issue.

"They've got to keep the police presence going up here to help with that kind of stuff," she says. "They've done better lately with being here whenever we need them for vagrants and homeless people. They can't let this part of the street go back to what it was three, four years ago, because we've made so much progress. To get people to feel safe enough who either don't live here or don't know Charleston to come past Calhoun and keep going. I hope that the city and police force continue to take it seriously."

Morris Sokol Furniture has kept customers coming back through it all — they've been open for 89 years. Owner Joe Sokol empathizes with the business owners forced to close up shop, blaming the economy for their misfortunes.

"They had very sharp, intelligent people running the places," Sokol says. "They were a great asset to the area. It was totally the economy."

He admits that even a store like his, with its strong customer base and years of history, has felt the effects of the recession. And the stores without that base, the young, funky stores that have added so much to the area, are the ones that are closing.

"I really wish they'd had more time to develop a following, because they were great stores," Sokol says.

Movin' On Up

While much of the Upper King community is mourning the losses, some are curious and excited about the changes to the area.

"Is King Street losing its luster? I don't think so whatsoever," says Chris Price, co-founder and principal at the PrimeSouth Group. Price declined to say how much property the group owns, but he did say that they own the majority of the property on Upper King. And though he recognizes that the economy is affecting everyone, he does not think it's fully to blame for the spate of recent closings.

"We have lost a couple of tenants ... but if you really look into why we have lost those tenants, it's not because of Upper King Street, it's not because of the economy. They'll all blame it on that, but some of the losses that have gone out are due to management issues, people retiring, business models changing.

"But I think the biggest thing that needs to be emphasized is that all the tenants that are leaving Upper King Street ... look what they're being replaced with. They're being replaced very quickly with higher-end, better-funded retailers and restaurants."

Artist and Craftman is being replaced by Halls Chophouse, a high-end steakhouse. Wonderland's space is already home to Sig, a bathroom and kitchen fixtures store that has moved from West Ashley. And Abmey & Company was replaced with SieMatic, a German-based kitchen outfitter. Other businesses joining the area include a restaurant called Shine and Mac & Murphy, a paper company.

"When you lose a wonderful tenant and a fine two-story arts store, and you replace that with a first-class chophouse, Halls Chophouse, the level of tenant has dramatically increased from the craft store selling crayons and paper and wonderful merchandise, but you're replacing it with a very high-end steakhouse," Price says.

Price says that, despite the number of empty shops in the area, vacancies on King Street remain between five and seven percent because of how quickly the spaces are being filled. He also says that rent prices have remained steady over the last few years, and that the ratio of national versus local companies remains in favor of local companies. At press time, we were unable to obtain official statistics from the City of Charleston.

"Let me give you an example," Price says. "Halls. It's a mom and pop operation, banking with a local bank, using a local contractor. They are locals, they live here. That's what people do not see. They see a new steakhouse coming in and they think, it's some rich guys from New York. But that's not the case. They are local people. It's not a typical chain store coming in and losing the local flavor, the local identity. And that is phenomenal."

Price predicts that the upscale design trend will continue to take over the area.

"It's not just Upper King Street, it's downtown Charleston, it's the region," he says. "People are coming to Charleston to shop for things they can't get anywhere else ... It's becoming more of a destination shopping/design area and that's wonderful for the community as a whole.

"I love the diversity up here," he adds. "You can eat, you can shop, you can go and design a new kitchen for your home, and you can have that glass of wine, or you can go to the ballet and walk out and go to Chai's to have a nightcap. It's just a very unique environment that needs to be built upon."

Susan Lucas is the director of the King Street Marketing Association (KSMA), and her job is to promote area businesses, and consequently help King Street continue to grow. She created the organization two years ago when she was owner of the French Hare on lower King, but she's since closed the store to focus on KSMA.

"Upper King is the place where the funky, trendy, upscale, strange SoHo mix happens, and new restaurants open all the time," Lucas says. "Everybody's coming to Upper King Street now."

Lucas admits that the closings are bad this year, but says they aren't abnormal.

"Obviously all of King Street has had a few places close, but you know, if you look at it historically, we generally do lose a couple every year," Lucas says. "We gain a few, lose a few, so if you're looking at it historically, it's more this year, but it isn't like catastrophic or more than usual, and we do still have places opening up ... The face is changing, but it's always changing. Some of the places that were a different mix are leaving, and different people are coming in. It's kind of a happening place. It's really interesting to watch it."

While emotions are running high and feelings are mixed on Upper King, everyone's eyes are on the future. New hotels and developments planned for the area — like the much-anticipated Midtown project — are expected to continue bringing shops and tourists farther up the peninsula. In five years, we might only have memories of the eclectic little place that Upper King used to be. But by that time, there might be a whole new funky shopping district, either farther up the street or somewhere else entirely.

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