The downtown Charleston antique district on King Street was little more than shells of storefronts in the 1980s. The businesses that once drove it were a half-century from their heyday.
An eclectic restorer with a passion for uncovering the secrets in the old wood helped drive its revitalization — and the beginning of the shopping mecca the street is today.
Now, Robert Sarco, 63, is calling it quits.
"It seems like all of old Charleston is going out of business," he said.
Sarco Antiques, which today operates in rural Hollywood, will shut the doors of the old commercial garage after a huge clear-out sale May 1. What's left includes three bays' worth of old iron forge bellows, sketch maps of historic sites like Gadsden's Wharf, tea kettles, lamps, curios, corner shelves and lots of chairs. What isn't sold will go to auction, Sarco said.
For now the inventory lies cluttered on tables and across the bay floors with the musty charm of a curmudgeon's collector basement. But go deeper into the confines and the smell of paint and varnish becomes fuller until you are in the back in the workshop where a reproduction Chippendale chair sits in a rusty tub awaiting a fresh coat.
Old Charleston tales
Antiques became big in Charleston when well-to-do families ravaged by economic turmoil in the decades after the Civil War began to sell off their possessions. By the 1920s the offerings had made King Street into a destination.
By the time Sarco arrived 50 years later, the sidewalks had settled into a haunt of familiar laid-back local characters, he said.
Shop owners would close up at 5 p.m. — one of them spinning his Tibetan prayer wheel to signal the hour. They stirred cocktails and sat on the street or gathered at Bobby's Soda Shop to drink beer behind the meat counter.
Customers would regale you with Old Charleston tales of mansion dinner-parties with dozens of servers scurrying.
Sarco set up shop just around the corner on Fulton Street for the cheaper rent, and began restoring furniture for the antique dealers to make his name. It wasn't long before their customers were his customers.
"The antiques business saved the downtown, saved a lot of antiques and produced income for people who needed some money," said former antique dealer Jim Pratt. "Robert continued that (1920s) tradition. He was one of the first restorers, a very talented restorer and one of the leading ones."
Sarco opened his own antique dealership and became, in his own words, a little bit of a bottom feeder — buying less valued pieces and restoring them to wonders for sale.
On a recent morning in his Hollywood workshop, Sarco ran a cleaning rag across a cypress and live oak table he made for his daughter, its wood grains tracing lines like a painting. He used rougher timber for the eye-catching stretcher supports underneath.
Grabbing a magnifying glass, he touched up repairs to the floral details on another table's intricate marquetry, or inlays.
Sarco has the swept hair of an artist, a sly, dark humor and the sharp eyes of an exacting man. He is big shouldered from years of heavy lifting, if a little hunched with age. He was told years ago to focus on restoration or antique sales but not to do both, he said.
He did more. When a bar on the first floor of his Fulton Street shop closed, he took it over, serving the parents during the day and their kids at night, he likes to joke.
As King Street grew from pretty dead to pretty vibrant, in Pratt's words, rents went through the roof.
Sarco moved out, leaving the place to dealers who could put $2 million (of merchandise) on the floor, he said.
'Fainted dead away'
With the relocation to Hollywood came a few more intriguing sidelines. In 2010, a century-old Magnolia tree fell at a Ridgeville home, devastating the octogenarian owner who had grown up playing in it. Sarco trimmed it and turned some of the wood into an ornate lamp table to console her.
In 2013, he came across a cobalt locket with strands of hair inside. It was wedged in the groove of an antique walnut cupboard he was restoring. Called a mourning locket, it was one of those sentimental attachments in antebellum times, kept as a good luck charm when the beloved went to war or off on another dangerous journey.
“Forgive the wish that would have kept you here,” the inscription read.
Sarco set out to learn its story: a two-century-old Lowcountry tragedy, braided in the fine weave of Gen. John McPherson’s hair.
McPherson was a plantation owner on the Pocotaligo River, a tidal creek outside Beaufort. He was aboard the "Rose in Bloom," on an 1806 trip from Charleston to New York City when a blast from a hurricane capsized the ship and killed 23 passengers, including McPherson.
Sarco also has come across a bag holding a fortune in diamond rings and other jewelry taped in a nook under a dining room table. The owner, he said, fainted dead away when he showed her; she had been searching for it for 25 years.
He'll keep restoring a few pieces at time, he said. He loves the work but has grown tired of the grind.
"Six or seven days a week is killing me. I want to go back to my gardening, do more trout fishing, flounder gigging," Sarco said.
Then he walked out from under the cardboard sign hung over the restoration studio that read "absolutely no browsing," out to his beat-up old Ford truck, to meet his daughter and show her the table.