Kimberly Hines has been reassuring her neighborhood customers. Don’t worry, she tells them, the hardware store will be bigger and better — and not that far away.
“It’s a half-hour walk,” she said, “an eight-minute drive.” There will be a bike stand for those who prefer pedaling and only need a light bulb or screwdriver or can of spray paint.
Hines’ East Bay True Value Hardware Store, family owned and operated since 1988 and a reassuring retail staple of the Ansonborough neighborhood, is relocating to a site on the Upper King Street Extension — the Neck Area — which is undergoing a notable transformation. A 150-unit apartment complex is to be built next door to the old location.
At the hardware store on a recent warm afternoon, 85-year-old Rose O'Hara, who lives a short drive away on Legare Street, stopped by to purchase not tools, smoke alarms, air filters or Gorilla Tape, but a carton of store manager John Johnson's fresh eggs. She said she comes to the store regularly to buy all sorts of things: garden supplies, duplicate keys, even homemade pies baked by Hines and her daughter Merissa Ellis.
"I love this place," O'Hara said. "My grandmother and mother used it."
The store's imminent move didn't bother her, but she didn't much like the idea of a big apartment complex going up in a flood zone. She said Charleston, along with her family ancestors, who first arrived in 1720, have survived two wars (Revolutionary and Civil) and now face a new battle.
"This time it's money," she said. "And that's scarier. I'm concerned about Charleston losing its soul."
The Ansonborough neighborhood where East Bay True Value Hardware Store is situated got its start in the mid-1700s as Charleston's first suburb. Named for Capt. Charles Anson, a defender of the South Carolina and Georgia coast, the area was destroyed in the fire of 1838 and rebuilt with Charleston bricks made by slaves and money lent by local banks.
The neighborhood became a place for low-income blacks and others until the Historic Charleston Foundation launched a major urban rehabilitation effort starting in the 1960s. Today, the area bordered by Market Street, Meeting Street, Calhoun Street and East Bay Street is among the city's most desirable and expensive.
“Charlestonians can’t afford to live downtown,” said Kit Bennett, co-owner of Lotus Flower. “It’s becoming ‘CharlestonWorld.’”
The florist shop recently relocated from the corner of Laurens and Washington streets to upper Meeting Street. The property Bennett and her partner Mary Silsby rented soon will be the site of the new apartments. A building that housed The Vegetable Bin and a paint store recently were demolished to make way for the residential project.
She expressed worry that all the development — the high-priced condos, boutique hotels, nice restaurants — are contributing to higher real estate prices, rents and taxes. Traffic has worsened, too, Bennett said, and parking can be a challenge for residents without private spaces.
“The hotels are fine,” Bennett said. “But the wait staff and maids can’t afford to live here. ... It’s a changing world. You won’t have the hardware stores, you won’t have people just running in.”
Among the independent downtown retailers that have closed in the past couple of years are the King Street furniture stores and Hughes Lumber and Building Supplies. Last month, Anne’s, one of the last independently owned clothing stores on Lower King Street, announced it would close, probably in March.
The Gadsden, an upscale condominium development located near Ansonborough with units priced between $400,000 and $1.3 million, opened late last year. Since 2016, The Dewberry, Hotel Bella Grace and Hotel Bennett — all a short walk from Ansonborough — have opened, helping to bring total hotel rooms in Charleston County to more than 17,000.
Michael McNally, senior vice president of Nashville-based Southern Land Co., which is developing the new apartment complex next to the hardware store, said the process is approaching the three-year mark and has included dozens of meetings with local stakeholders, including the Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, Historic Charleston Foundation, Coastal Conservation League and Preservation Society of Charleston.
"We very much seek community input," he said. "It’s the only way to do it. ... We knew the city was going to hold us to a high standard, but we also wanted to work with the neighbors."
As a result, many compromises are made and promises are put in writing, McNally said. Not every concern can be satisfied — "the numbers have to make sense" — but much can be done to reassure the community. This development will not reach the maximum height allowed and will not include retail because it's in a flood zone; it will exceed all of the city's minimum requirements and include alternative walkways for pedestrians.
"Our approach to all our projects is we want them to fit within the neighborhood they go in," McNally said.
Meanwhile, the same gentrification and tourism that’s contributing to all the hotel construction and restaurant openings is making its way up the city’s avenues into historically black neighborhoods. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s gaining strength and pressuring long-time residents more than ever.
Drive along Cannon or Spring streets — the once-thriving downtown commercial corridor of black Charleston — and take note of the yoga studios and coffee shops.
Thad Miller, operator of Family Barber Shop on Spring Street, has clipped hair in the Cannonborough-Elliottborough neighborhood since 1970. The barbershop first opened in 1956, when legal segregation remained in force and, consequently, African Americans relied on a tightly knit (and more robust) black economy that included financiers, service providers and retailers.
Integration brought change, including economic transformations that did not always benefit black communities. Today, African-American residents and black-owned businesses on the peninsula are under pressure by rising rents and other costs. The “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial District” — the Spring Street and Cannon Street corridor — is gentrifying fast. Many of the former black businesses are gone, replaced by white-owned bakeries and coffee shops, restaurants and wedding boutiques.
But Miller is holding on. He said business remains strong and his building, a dilapidated old house, soon will be renovated. Miller now cuts the hair of white customers, some from the Medical University or The Citadel or the College of Charleston.
“The clientele has changed tremendously,” he said.
'No longer a community'
East Bay True Value Hardware Store traces its origins to the 1970s when Hines' father, Burdette Lukert, opened a hardware store in Mount Pleasant. His son Scott Lukert opened the downtown store in 1988 and managed it until about 1995, when Burdette Lukert retired, then returned to the original store on Johnnie Dodds Boulevard. That's when Hines stepped in. After an early career in advertising, she was ready to run the show downtown (though her artistic side still asserts itself, prompting her to paint watercolors and makes clothes).
Lorraine Perry, a property manager and former board member of the Ansonborough Neighborhood Association who advocates for controlled growth, said life downtown was more “primitive” in the 1970s and ’80s. The commercial corridor wasn’t as shiny, but it housed many locally owned stores.
“King Street in the 1980s was a nice balance,” she said.
Many neighborhood residents must drive to the suburbs to do their shopping, while non-residents drive downtown to work or to shuttle their children to magnet and charter school or to attend church, she noted. What’s more, a growing number of homeowners downtown are part-time residents.
“There are no services for people who live here, and then they wonder why there’s traffic,” she said. “I have to cross one bridge or another to go to Lowe’s or Home Depot. ... So when you talk about what’s evolved, you really have to understand the fact that we’re no longer a community. ... People outside downtown might think we’re snobs, but they don’t have to deal with people blocking their driveways and sidewalks.”
Hines, the owner of the hardware store, noted that other cities — Asheville, Knoxville, Greenville — still have vintage shops downtown, as well as convenience and hardware stores. Asheville residents have fought to keep chain stores out of the downtown district.
Knoxville’s Central Business Improvement District and the state of Tennessee have sought to engage residents and store owners about maintaining a “right-sized” downtown and sense of community.
Greenville officials have commissioned a Downtown Strategic Master Plan to ensure its urban renewal efforts don’t run amok.
In Charleston, though, it just seems the small-business owners are being pushed out, Hines said.
Mayor John Tecklenburg has argued for restrictions on the building of new hotels, but his proposals have so far failed to gain traction. Efforts to build affordable housing and public green space have in some cases succeeded, but can't keep pace with commercial development.
Tecklenburg said local government can't control every aspect of an increasingly dynamic city, but that it must work "to protect overall neighborhood livability."
"That’s why we’re continuing to work to control hotel growth, and to regulate short term rentals," he said. "It’s also why our planning department is currently conducting a top-to-bottom review of our zoning categories to ensure we’re striking the proper balance for our residents’ quality of life.”
Pratt and Lambert
In the new location at 1409 King St. Extension, Hines will have more space, plus an adjacent lot for a garden center. Her daughter Merissa Ellis will take over management of the store.
Hines said the advantages of moving outweigh the disadvantages. It’s true that many of her regular customers — the ones who live in and near Ansonborough — now will have to drive up the street. On the other hand, she has many customers who live near Hampton Park and will soon have less distance to travel. Plus, most of the contractors are based uptown, and she’s been getting more and more of their business since Hughes Lumber closed.
The employees are positive, though the prospect of hauling all the inventory to the new space can seem daunting and nostalgia for the old store is sure to set in. Johnson, who will continue to stock the refrigerated case with eggs from his free-range Wadmalaw Island chickens, said the development that's forcing retailers to relocate is leaving its mark.
The store will still sell Merissa’s pickled vegetables. It will still boast a “little museum” of odd collectibles encased in old display cases. Pratt and Lambert, the two cats that have made the store home, will continue to charm (or startle) customers. And, occasionally, the smell of freshly baked pies still will waft through the aisles.
Not all of her customers are happy about the move, but they understand, Hines said.
“They say, ‘At least you’re staying on the peninsula.’”