{June 5, 2012}   Local Businesses Make Downtown Unique

I remember the first time I experienced Downtown Greenville. Although I lived in Georgia, I had family in the Upstate and often spent part of my summer vacation here. I was about 6 or 7 and had come Downtown with my aunts to visit some local antique stores.  I remember the tall red brick buildings against the Carolina blue sky and the parking meters where colorfully dressed women stood and waved as we drove by. My aunts pointed out the Poinsett Hotel and told me that was where their proms were held…which seemed odd to me, since it looked empty and abandoned at the time. I remember the sweet, musty smell of the antique stores that were owned by local people with names like Townes, Pinkney and McBee, who took time to chat with us and share the history of the various items in the shop. I also remember how important it was to my aunts that we leave before it got dark. Although they offered no explanation, in my child’s mind, I imagined that Downtown Greenville was a magical place that could only been seen at special times and disappeared at the end of the day – rather like the town in the movie “Brigadoon”, which I had seen on TV the week before.  As we drove away from town, I looked back for a last glimpse of the city that would become so important to me years later.

When I was in high school, my parents and I moved to the Upstate. I was eager to visit Downtown to see if it still retained the same magic it held that first visit years before.  As soon as I could, I found my way to Main Street.  The 4 lane street had changed to two, now flanked by sidewalks and shade trees. The parking meters and flamboyant women were gone, as were many of the antique stores – replaced by vintage clothing stores, coffee houses and charming cafes, each more interesting than the previous one (and MUCH more interesting than anything I saw at the mall), most still locally owned by “old family” Greenvillians and new residents alike. Downtown was also home to a fledgling arts and theatre community featuring not only The Peace Center, but many new theatres and art galleries (also locally owned and operated) that had moved into formerly vacant storefronts. With older, almost adult eyes, I now saw some of the cracks in Downtown’s mystic (and why my aunts were so eager to get home before dark), but that didn’t lessen the fascination it held for me.  There was an excitement Downtown – a bohemian independence, a determined uniqueness, a promise of what could be. My new hometown had come a long way, but still had a ways to go and I was eager to be a part of its bright future.

Where am I going with this walk down memory lane? When many of the large retailers moved out of Downtown in the 1960’s and 70’s to re-establish themselves in malls and shopping centers, it was local “Mom & Pop” establishments that moved in.  It was the same unique local businesses that kept Downtown from dying entirely and fiercely independent local business owners who shared the inspiration and vision that made our award-winning Main Street what it is today. It was an eclectic group of local businesspeople who helped re-develop the West End and a “motley crew” of wonderfully eccentric local characters that are making the North End a fun and funky destination.

I understand that “big business” and chain stores are important to the economy. They provide employment, commerce and convenience to local residents. They can also sap an area of its distinctiveness and make it look like “Anywhere, USA”.  Small, locally owned businesses are the lifeblood to a place like Downtown Greenville. Their owners are vested in the community – they are our friends, family and neighbors. They present products created locally and add an unmistakable flavor that can only be found in the Upstate. Ask yourself, would you rather have a plain pair of earrings that can be found at any department store or a pair hand-crafted from recycled materials by a local artisan from Green-Eyed Girls Boutique? Buy a CD by the latest trendy pop star, or classics by local blues legends found on vinyl at Horizon Records? Have dinner at a chain restaurant with an inoffensive menu, or a twist on a Carolina classic prepared by a southern chef using locally grown produce? I thought so…

Now I am not saying we should do away with chain stores entirely. But we should do all we can to support our local small business owners. Next time you are in the market for a particular item…be it a new shirt or just a cup of coffee as you run your errands…consider stopping by a locally owned business first. Not only will you find some truly exceptional items, you’ll probably meet some pretty exceptional people too! And our local economy will be all the better for it!

Today, Downtown Greenville boasts a thriving arts and theatre community, locally owned restaurants with menus worthy of those found in NYC, LA and even Europe, funky little shops with a Boho vibe and an electrifying nightlife with music venues featuring phenomenal local and regional talent. I now think I understand the secret to Downtown’s mystic. She is a modern Southern Belle – gracious and inviting by day, making her friends and guests feel happy, warm and welcome. But she does not retreat when the sun goes down…far from it! At night, she lets her hair down, puts on her party dress and celebrates life with a “joie di vive” that is all her own. This is my Downtown Greenville – traditional and funky, gracious and fearless, social and independent, but most of all, not quite like any other place on Earth, and I am so glad to call it home!


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