Handmade for the Holidays: Palmetto State Offers Plenty of Gifts for Home

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Saturday, December 2

With “Cyber Monday” hitting a record $6.6 billion in sales last week and nearly one-third of that going to Amazon.com, many might see that news as one more sign that globalization is trumping local economies.

But in the face of that vacuum, the Palmetto State is becoming fertile ground for a return, to some degree, of locally made items for the home and kitchen.

It’s been happening in the Charleston area for years, but the movement, which one new shop owner in Greer likened to a “farm-to-table” movement for the home,  seems to be spreading across South Carolina.

The renaissance, ranging from the traditional crafts of the Catawba people near Rock Hill and the Gullah of the Lowcountry to high quality furniture and more modern arts and crafts, offers South Carolinians opportunities to make their holiday shopping have more meaning and purpose.

Storefront comeback

In 2015, Liza Jones opened Only Southern Made with friends and fellow mothers, Kim Banks and Lindsay Chastain, as an online-only business offering high-quality, handmade gifts from the South.

Of the merchandise they sell, about 85 percent is made in the South, including about 40 percent made in the Palmetto State.

“I tell our customers all of the time that we are ‘farm to table’ but for shopping,” says Jones. “We’ve gotten to such a mass-produced world that it’s nice to return to your roots and know where your stuff is coming from.”

But when their lease at a corporate office building expired, the women decided to buck the conventional trend and open a store on Trade Street in downtown Greer.

They moved into the store in April and Jones says it has worked out well, with about 70 percent of their sales coming from the store and 30 percent from the website, www.onlysouthernmade.com.

She described the Black Friday weekend as “amazing" and the best sales weekend to date.

But Jones says the online presence plays a key role in the storefront’s success, including filling the gaps when foot traffic is slow.

She adds that when people shop from a local store selling locally and regionally made products, they aren’t only supporting those small enterprises but helping revitalize towns that have been devastated by the combination of the interstate system, shopping malls, big box retailers and now the internet in the past four decades.

“For a long time, Greer — like a lot of Southern towns — was dying, “ says Jones.

“For the first time since the 1960s, all of the spaces of Trade Street (Greer’s main street) have been leased or purchased. While they’re not all functioning yet because a lot of the buildings have been abandoned for a long time and need repairs, all are spoken for. That’s a big deal. There’s a lot of stuff happening here.”

Turning the tables

Just as Only Southern Made used online shopping to leverage its storefront in Greer, the South Carolina Artisans Center in Walterboro has embraced and promoted its proximity to the interstate in selling South Carolina-only arts and crafts.

“Our largest audience comes off the Interstate,” says Gale Doggette, executive director of the center, noting that more than 80 percent arrive via Interstate 95. “We are three miles for either exit, so you can get off (Exit No.) 57 and pop back on 53, or vice versa depending on your direction, and not backtrack or lose any ground.”

While Doggette admits to not getting much business from Charleston-area residents, she does say Columbia residents are frequent customers.

The center, which opened in 1994, features the work of 300 artisans and craftspeople in South Carolina. Contrary to popular belief, Doggette says shopping at the center is not expensive. The average price of an item is $23, though that doesn’t factor in the $53,000 canoe made by Round O’s Philip Greene of Wood Song Canoes.

Doggette contends that the center is “the best kept secret in South Carolina.” She’s observed that people are seeking an experience while shopping and says the center offers that. Next year, it will be adding a café featuring Gullah cuisine.

Talk about tradition

With the strong presence of sweetgrass basketweaving in the Lowcountry and more recent efforts to promote the Gullah-Geechee culture, many in the state may not be aware that the only federally recognized indigenous tribe in the state also has signature craft.

Thousands of years before sweetgrass basketweaving arrived in South Carolina, the Catawba were making an earthenware pottery from the rich, red clay of the Palmetto State. Unlike pottery turned on a wheel, the Catawba hand-shaped pottery, left the vessels unglazed and put them in fires.

The tradition nearly died out a century ago when the tribe’s population fell to about 100 people. However, in recent decades, the Catawba won federal recognition (the only tribe in the state to do so), re-established themselves on a 1,000-acre reservation in York County and continued making pottery, considered the longest-running art form in North America.

Caitlin Rogers, craft store manager and tribal historic preservation officer assistant at the Catawba Cultural Center, says the center offers handmade pottery, as well as baskets and beadwork, made by tribe members along with other items related to the indigenous peoples of North America.

Rogers says only about 40 of the nearly 3,000 tribe members provide art to the center and that most of the contributors have full-time jobs and do art on the side.

She says the Catawba remain misunderstood people by many.

“I think a lot of locals are familiar with the Catawba and the history of the pottery, but other than that, it’s kind of hard because a lot of people have a different opinion of what native tribes are supposed to be,” says Rogers.

“We still get visitors who are shocked that we’re wearing regular clothes and not riding around on horses.”

Keeping Charleston real

While Charleston’s efforts to offer handmade, original work seems to be ahead of the rest of the state, few in the movement are resting on their laurels.

Jordan Amaker, director of marketing for Lowcountry Local First, says Charleston is fortunate to have an “incredibly strong entrepreneurial spirit and support system.”

“The Lowcountry alone has dozens — if not hundreds — of talented makers who design and produce items for the home, ranging from pillows and mattresses to stunning lighting, reclaimed wood tables and recycled glass countertops. “

She adds that the organization has recognized that many are “being forced by our shifting habits to maximize their presence on the web in order to compete and make their shopping experience simple and convenient."

Amaker encourages all locals to consider local providers first whenever possible and that may will be surprised by comparable prices, better service and quality.

One stop shop (and stay awhile)

While Lowcountry Local First has a listing of local sources for handmade home items, sometimes it’s scattered all over and not convenient.

One location in the heart of downtown Charleston refocused its retail approach to nearly all local within the last 18 months, and it’s paying off.

The Preservation Society of Charleston’s gift shop, located at King and Queen streets, has nearly tripled its sales since taking the new approach and is closing in on annual sales of an estimated $700,000.

Andy Archie, director of retail operations, played a key role in making the switch and notes that originally he had doubts about the sourcing.

“I didn’t know (if) the supply was enough,” says Archie, who has lifelong experience in corporate retail. “At first, I thought we’d start with made in Charleston, then made in South Carolina and then made in the South, not knowing that the local supply would be so strong.”

And Archie didn’t have to do all the recruiting.

“They (artisans and craftspeople) found us. This is what has happened as we have changed this over the past year and a half. Word has gotten out and we’re now an incubator for the local makers scene,” says Archie.

“It’s a win, win. It works for them and works for us.”

Archie doesn’t deny the opportunity that the society has in owning a building on King and not having to face the burden of skyrocketing rents in a booming economy.

Another component of its success is the society’s cozy bookstore, located behind the retail shop, featuring a couch and chairs that invite people to linger in the quiet and flip through books.

Even though the society has had a bookstore for years, its emphasis on local titles and books related to preservation, both built and natural, is evident.

Still, Archie feels challenged to get locals through the door.

“I can get people from New York and DC. Our biggest challenge is getting members and people in Charleston aware of it. We’re getting there,” says Archie “A lot of our local makers send people over here. It’s starting to happen, but it takes a little while. It’s not an overnight thing.”

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