"Hi there! Welcome to Urban Outfitters! Can I help you find something?"
The perky sales assistant working the entrance of what used to be the Garden Theatre is a walking billboard for the retail chain's brand of casual wear: filigreed, dangly hoop earrings framing a smile that hasn't seen 20 years, crushed velvet jacket with upturned collar, a skinny chiffon scarf looped around her neck, and a pair of supertight flared jeans that look like they come with a pre-distressed camel toe.
"No thanks," I smile. "I'm just here to look around."
I look around. The historic 1920s-era theatre, which began as a King Street movie cinema, appears to have been gutted completely. Gone is the entry foyer, with its slightly inclined hallway leading up to the cozy lobby. Gone, too, is the lobby, the quaint dual entryway to the house seats, the raked auditorium, the wooden stage, the darkened, crumbling backstage area with its ruined dressing rooms. Even the ceiling has been torn out; the raw wooden beams crisscross overhead like thatch, dripping white wrought-iron chandeliers and audio speakers, from which just-obscure-enough-to-be-hip indie rock blares.
On either side, the ancient black and brown brickwork peeks out from behind hanging wooden walls, littered with white wooden shelving, vintage and antique-styled tables, even old chairs, across all of which is draped a colorful profusion of coats, sweaters, hoodies, panties, bras, tops, and $24 T-shirts. A round wooden table near the entrance spills over with stacks of books: Orgasms -- How To Have Them, Give Them, and Keep Them Coming. The Stripper's Guide to Looking Good Naked. Position of the Day Playbook. The Guide to Getting It On. Nasty Astrology.
A stained concrete stairwell leads upward along one of the walls from near the table. It once rang with the feet of black Charlestonians who wished to see a movie, forced to use a separate entrance and sit in the balcony. Now it leads to the men's department.
Upstairs: a heavy bare-plywood-and-fluorescent-light industrial motif. A half dozen racks of $50 shirts, jeans, and sweaters, a shelf of obligatory straw "cowboy" hats, for those Christmas spenders sadly laboring under the impression that they're still in fashion. Another table of books: My Bitches. The Good Bud Guide. The Cannabis Companion. Busted: Drug War Survival Skills. 101 Things To Do Before You Die. A History of Skateboard Art. 365 Daily Instructions for Hysterical Living. Spliffs.
From up here, I can see where the old Garden Theatre's heavy roof damage used to be -- one of the reasons neither its previous owner, the Beach Company, nor it's then manager, the City of Charleston, was willing to restore the theatre. The damaged section has been converted into a vast skylight, the brick supports carefully preserved to suggest creeping dilapidation.
Downstairs again, I move toward the back of the space. More vintage-style tables of sweaters, jeans, coats, sweatshirts, tees, "string camis," shoes, shorts, and skirts crowding in upon one another. One table teeters beneath Napoleon Dynamite merch and drinking games in boxes. The ceiling rises into a high domed expanse, and the music becomes louder as I approach the rear. There, an elaborately decorated rectangle arcs above the room like a vast wooden frame -- the theatre's original stage proscenium, still standing.
I walk beneath it and into the fitting rooms. Is that it, I wonder. Is that all that's left? Responding to some inner tug, I glance directly above me into the dim reaches of what was formerly the fly space above the stage. A web of liftlines descends from headblocks in the rafters -- sandbags hanging from their ends near the walls, the other ends tied to battens with curtains furled around them like sails high within the darkness. I stare for a while, then realize it's not real, just an elaborate set piece -- new stage props where old ones used to exist, this time intended to make a retail establishment look like a historic theatre.
On the way out, I stop at the register and buy a small gift for a friend: a foiled pink flask. It goes into a small canvas tote in lieu of a plastic shopping bag.
"Save the Garden Theater," it reads. "Urban Outfitters."