Upstairs, downstairs Downtown shops head to higher ground as 1st-floor vacancies tighten

Susan Walker, owner of Ibu women’s apparel and home decor, talks about the second-floor space on King Street that she is turning into a retail shop. An opening date has not been set.

Susan Walker wanted a shop on lower King Street to display her hand-woven wares from foreign lands, but she couldn’t find the street-level space she yearned for. So she looked to a store with second-floor space to see what was available.

Walker decided on the upper level of the former John Gibson Antiques building at 183 King St. Above Vestique women’s boutique, work- ers drill, saw and hammer on a 2,000-square-foot space that was going to be a law office.

Soon, Walker, a former minister who loves to travel, will be displaying artisan-made clothing, home textiles, pillows and accessories in her shop called Ibu, named for a term of respect for women in the Malay language spoken in Indonesia. She also will have a seamstress on site and offer group tours, lectures and rooftop drinks.

Walker isn’t alone in looking upstairs in downtown Charleston for retail space.

Benrus military watch and accessories brand plans to open its flagship store this spring on ground and upper levels at 161 King. And Mary Norton of Moo Roo handbag fame recently launched an “upcycled” products retail shop and event space called Moo Roo Renew at 439 King, above Juanita Greenberg’s Nacho Royale restaurant.

“I couldn’t afford ground level,” Norton said. “Because of all the big guys who have come in, rents are just outrageous.”

The average retail rental rate per square foot in downtown Charleston is fetching more than $37, says the latest report by Lee & Associates, a commercial real estate firm. That compares to about $18 in Mount Pleasant, $16 on Daniel Island, $13 in West Ashley, $11 in North Charleston and $12 in Summerville.

The average rental rate per square foot in the tri-county area is about $14.50.

It’s a “relative bargain” to be on an upper level of retail on King Street, said Jennifer Davis with Domicile Real Estate on lower King.

“Upstairs is roughly half the price of downstairs on King Street,” she added.

And many are taking advantage of it, some taking up two floors. Women’s clothing store Madewell, owned by J Crew, opened a year ago on two floors at 282 King. Also occupying two floors are Half Moon Outfitters at 280 King, Urban Outfitters at 371 King and Jos. A Bank at 328 King.

Other upstairs shops include Sassy Shortcake women’s clothing and Silver Starfish stationery and invitations, both at 237 King above Cache, Tips-to-Toes nail salon at 39 George St., just off King, and farther north off Upper King, Bella Bridesmaid at 43 John St.

“There is nothing available below Calhoun Street,” Davis said of ground-floor storefronts. “There isn’t a place to put them except upstairs. Some people are considering second floors when they wouldn’t two years ago. Lower King is going to be transformed.”

Giovanni Feroce, chairman and CEO of Benrus, the former head of Alex and Ani jewelry chain, which also has a shop on King Street, sees that happening. Because of the demand for retail space in downtown Charleston, his company found it tough to find a place big enough for the size retail store he wanted.

The site at 161 King, formerly retail on the first floor and living space upstairs, offered the perfect spot, he said. By spring, Feroce plans to convert the nearly 2,700 square feet of space into two levels of retail, with a mezzanine for a “more dramatic retail environment.”

Feroce chose Charleston to launch his first store because of the historic military roots of the city. “That complements the rich history of the Benrus brand, once known for its military watches,” he said. “King Street is a prominent shopping destination in the United States, and we are a fast-growing, American, lifestyle company. The marriage of the two is an equation for success.”

Norton of Moo Roo Renew believes more local merchants will look for second-floor shops. “Because of all the big-name stores moving into King Street ... independents are going up to second floors,” she said. “It’s compelling for tourists and locals to see all of King Street utilized.”

The downside is she’s not at street level. “There are challenges to being a second-floor girl,” she said.

She hangs a sign in front of Juanita Greenberg’s, places a sign in an upstairs window and has another by the staircase leading up to her shop, which sells vintage furniture, home decor, accessories and handbags. The space also has a full kitchen for events.

“It’s hard being tucked away, but we are going to make it work,” Norton said.

Davis promotes retail spaces off the beaten path as well, saying, “You could stumble upon a wonderful little shop.” But she admits selling upstairs is easier. Going upstairs will work “as long as it’s done correctly and the signage is there,” she added.

Patterson Smith, a commercial real estate agent who owns the building that houses Carolina on King at 258 King, agrees with Davis.

“There is absolutely no reason that we can’t go to second-floor retail. There is strong demand for retail space on King Street, particularly lower King,” Smith said. “I think for King Street as a whole, second-floor retail is viable and doable.”

Retailers even could look to Meeting and Broad streets for second-floor space, but it will be driven by demand and opportunity, he said.

Like Norton, Walker realizes the challenges of not being at a customer’s eye level on the street, but she sees the upside since her shop offers a rooftop as well. “I’m going to have to do my marketing up front,” Walker said. “I have to make it a destination. To me, it’s intriguing to find a little treasure. You can look for shops with national brands, but when you stumble upon a boutique with all these treasures, that’s part of the charm of Charleston.”