Retail reboot Gwynn’s marks nearly 50 years with new addition

Marshall Simon and daughter Madison Simon sit in the new addition of Gwynn’s of Mount Pleasant.

Glass beads and crystals installed by hand glisten from the ornate wallpaper in bigger-than-walk-in-closet-sized dressing rooms.

Dom Perignon champagne and top-shelf liquors sit above a metallic glass countertop with LED lights in a private shopping area.

Travertine marble replaces stucco on the nearly $1 million, 2,000-square-foot addition to Gwynn’s department store in Mount Pleasant.

As part of the add-on, shop owner Marshall Simon, 58, aimed for a top-notch shopping experience to match the upscale merchandise in the 20,000-square-foot showroom.

“I’m pleased with the way it turned out,” he said. “It makes the store more elegant, and it makes us stand out from the rest of the shopping center.”

For the past 24 years, Gwynn’s has served many a customer from the Harris Teeter-anchored Village Pointe Shopping Center near the base of the Ravenel Bridge, just across from downtown Charleston.

But its roots go back much farther — almost 50 years to be exact.

Simon’s ex-wife’s parents, Gwen and Norris Ward, started in a 600-square-foot shop in 1967 on Coleman Boulevard, on the site of what is now The Boulevard apartment complex.

Gwen Ward wanted the new business venture named after her, but she thought the alternate spelling of “Gwynn’s” looked more refined and gave the retail startup a little more panache. It stuck.

In the 1970s, the shop moved to a 2,000-square-foot space in Moultrie Plaza just down the street and expanded into neighboring shops over a five-year period.

By the late 1980s, the Wards wanted to retire but Simon and his then-wife, Lynn, didn’t want to see it close, so in 1990 they bought the business.

With 18 months left on the lease, the landlords wanted to raise the rent from $2 per square foot to $6.

“I thought it was highway robbery,” Simon said.

He started scouting out other sites for the store and decided to buy a 1.5-acre vacant parcel where the current shop is located.

The timing was not ideal. A recession hit in 1991. The savings and loan crisis was unfolding. Credit was hard to come by.

Through the help of a friend, he eventually secured financing from NationsBank, which later combined with Bank of America.

The shop opened on April 30, 1992, with 10 employees working seven days a week. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it closed on Sundays to give workers more time with their families.

Simon’s marriage didn’t last, so he wound up buying out his wife’s part of the business a few years after it opened in Village Pointe.

“I paid a lot more for it the second time,” he said with a laugh.

A low point for the business came during the last recession, when people stopped spending money during the dual financial and housing crises. He called 2009 “a difficult period.”

“When you are in the middle of it, you don’t know when it’s going to end,” Simon said.

Simon laid off two of his employees, a move he didn’t want to make but was forced to, given the economic downturn.

He now employs 28 people, all but one is full-time.

The high point of his retail career came last year, when he finally paid off the $1.2 million loan to build the store in the early 1990s. “That would probably cost $5 million or more now,” he said.

To celebrate, Simon took a helicopter ride around Charleston.

Simon declined to say what his annual sales volume is in dollars, but he said sales have set a record every year since 2011.

“We have doubled our sales in the past six years,” he said. “We were concerned that construction (of the addition) would affect sales this year, but it hasn’t. Parking helps us a lot. Our customers don’t have to circle the block to find a space.”

Because of his sales success in recent years, in 2012 Simon explored adding a 500-square-foot shop at the corner of Calhoun and King streets in downtown Charleston in the former Millennium Music building that now houses Walgreens and other chain retailers. He backed off because of rent and parking.

“We decided to make this the best possible destination,” Simon said.

His daughter, Madison, who could one day take over the business, attributes the store’s success to its customer service.

“We are selling more than pretty clothes,” she said. “That sets us apart.”

She added the personal service and experienced sales staff provide a better shopping experience that has led to repeat customers over the years.

Customers, both longtime and new, rave about the store.

“I wish we had more things like this in Charleston,” said Jennifer Small of Daniel Island. “You always know you can walk in and get something good.”

Nicole Norris of Sumter, who has an office on Daniel Island, called it “a very nice upscale department store that carries brands I like that I can’t get elsewhere. It’s very service-oriented, and they know you when you walk in the door.”

Carol Hoffman of Mount Pleasant has been shopping at the store for more than 30 years.

“You don’t need to go to New York or Atlanta, you just need to come to Gwynn’s,” the retired French and Spanish teacher said. “I don’t go anywhere else if I can’t find it at Gwynn’s. It’s like a family. I know everybody and everybody knows me. They know my style. If something does not look good on me, they tell me.”

Last year, Hoffman traveled to England for the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta and needed outfits for every occasion on the two-week trip.

“I came to Gwynn’s and they spent hours and days with me,” she said. “They were so patient with me.”

Simon’s work ethic helps the store as well, too. He makes it to the shop every day between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., the store’s operating hours. He makes time to attend fashion shows in New York City and enjoy his 35-foot power boat with family and friends on weekends.

He calls his biggest success his two children — Madison, 27, and son Jennings, 29.

But like any businessman, he points out he’s had a few failures.

“I don’t dwell on them,” he said.

Simon hasn’t taken the business online yet, but he’s working toward it.

“If you can make the shopping experience in the store really positive and exciting — because people are very social — the store is very relevant,” he said. “The in-store experience is much better.”

Daughter Madison added, “We see the need for e-commerce, but we want to do it the right way.”

“Some stores have invested too much with sales online and regular prices in the store to get people to go to the website, but it doesn’t drive people into the store,” Simon said.

“We want to wow our customers and help them leave a little happier,” he said. “We don’t always succeed, but we always try.”

Customers will almost certainly walk out with a smile in September. That’s when the shop will celebrate its expansion with a grand opening.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.