Changing face of Upper King Street has some store owners protesting while others are going with the flow

Magar Hat Works is among the businesses that have left upper King Street. Owner Leigh Magar, who relocated to Cannon Street, posted a plea to support locally-owned businesses after her store lost its lease.

At shops on Upper King Street you can still buy a Coke and a pickled pig's foot or get your shoes repaired, but as redevelopment marches up the peninsula, there also are pricey new home design stores and a bakery for dogs.

Efforts to revitalize Upper King Street have created a diverse, urban shopping district where you can get a spa treatment or a $59 suit, but there are mixed feelings about the changes.

Leigh Magar made protest signs after her Magar Hat Works store lost its lease; she had to move this month.

"King Street — not a strip mall," said one sign she posted in the window of her then-store. "Viva los Independientes."

Next door to Magar's former shop, Charleston Church Supply is having a moving sale. On the other side, the former Uptown Styles clothing store is boarded up.

Some older businesses, including Super Bad — King of Fashions, are still prominent landmarks. Others, like the What Cha Like gospel music store and Young's Beauty Supply, a seller of human hair wigs and braids, have closed or moved.

"It's definitely changing quickly up here," Magar said. "I'm all for progress, but I think we're losing a lot of the character of Charleston."

Others say the revitalization of Upper King Street is bringing new customers to their door.

"I've seen more tourists here than I've ever seen before," said James Peterson, a former city police officer who has operated a television repair shop and record store at 509 King St. for 30 years.

"I've seen a lot of change, and it's for the best," he said. "You can't stop progress. People have discovered Charleston."

Peterson said that when he took over the business 30 years ago, the shops on Upper King Street were mostly patronized by Charleston's black residents, like him. Back then, anything north of Calhoun Street was simply "uptown."

Now, hotel and condo developments are in the works all along Upper King Street, which received a more than $13 million face-lift completed in 2007 that included new sidewalks, underground utilities and street trees.

"One goal of streetscape was revitalization, and that seems to be occurring," Sharon Brennan, director of Charleston's Economic Development Department, said after the work was completed last year. Brennan said most of the businesses that opened on King Street in 2006, when the streetscape project was under way, opened on Upper King Street.

The work began in 2005, and was financed with special multi-year assessments on businesses with property along Upper King Street. At the same time, residential neighborhoods around Upper King Street were gentrifying, property values were rising, and the Charleston School of Law became established in the area.

An outbreak of stores selling upscale home furnishings prompted an effort to call a section of Upper King Street "the design district" and some developers have taken to calling the area "midtown," which also is the name of a massive hotel and condo project proposed at King and Spring streets.

Magar, while objecting to national chain stores, was actually part of the vanguard of new stores moving to Upper King Street. Her now-closed shop, which opened seven years ago, sold high-end hats that she custom designed.

Her fear is that Upper King Street will become too much like the downtown version, dotted with big-name stores that can be found at most shopping malls.

Magar plans to move to Cannon Street, where she's purchased a building so that she won't have to worry about losing another lease.

Fifty-Two-Five, which sells new and used compact discs and records and rents hard-to-find videos, moved to Upper King Street in 2006 after losing its lease downtown at 75 Wentworth St.

The college students that make up the store's customer base also have been moving uptown.

"There are more students up this way," owner Clay Scales said. "I hope we can keep some of the local flavor."

Peterson, one of the long- established Upper King Street merchants, said he still has customers for the pickled pigs' feet that bob in a huge glass jar on his back counter, but his television repair work has changed with the times.

These days, Peterson's television technicians do 90 percent of the repairs in people's home, working on sets that are too big and heavy to tote to a repair shop.

And Peterson's record business now caters to collectors, and people who scoop up vintage albums at his store and resell them on internet auction sites.

"I learned in my business class that if you can't survive in a changing environment, then you need to go and work for somebody," he said. "Change is good, and King Street has been very good to me."