Burbage’s Self-Serve Grocery

Downtown. 157 Broad St. 723-4054

A young boy walks into Burbage’s, his face clouded with the air of purpose. About 30 seconds later, his mother comes through the door with the boy’s little brother in her arms, who rushes to join his big bro as his mother warmly greets and hugs Robert Burbage, the 84-year-old stalwart of the gourmet grocery/corner store located in the heart of the neighborhoods South of Broad.

As the two boys peruse the candy rack, their mother explains to Robert that the oldest just got his first wallet and he’s anxious to make his first official purchase with his own money. After careful deliberation, the boy puts a package of Starburst candies on the counter and Burbage chats with the boy as he hands him his change, while his mother picks up a container of homemade soup from the coolers near the deli counter in the back of the store. She pays and the trio head out the door with a wave and a smile for Burbage, who grins back at them.

This scene replays day in and day out at the neighborhood grocery, one of the oldest establishments of its kind in Charleston — and one of the few still around at all.

Although the space itself has housed groceries since 1880, Robert Burbage didn’t move in until 1961, after he had been a Charleston grocer for over a decade. Burbage was born and raised a farmer’s son on the outskirts of Summerville, where he was until he got sent overseas.

“I was in the medical corps during World War II,” Burbage says, “and my brother [John Henry] and I got out about the same time, but he was home first. When I came home, I got off the train and he was picking me up and he said, ‘Don’t unpack, we’re going to Charleston.'”

He and his brother opened their first corner store in 1948 on Ashley Avenue, then John Henry left to open his own place in North Charleston. Burbage’s occupied three different addresses on Tradd Street before Robert bought the space on the corner of Broad and Savage in 1961. After nearly 30 years of 12-hour days and seven-day weeks, Robert knew a change had to come when he discovered he had throat cancer in the late 1980s.

In 1992, Robert’s son Al bought the store from his father and moved into the upstairs apartment with his wife. Today, Al and his brother Matthew are the backbone of the store as they prepare the ready-to-eat offerings that line the shelves of the tall coolers near the back of the store. Burbage’s has a fine array of gourmet prepared foods — frozen phyllo dough, smoked duck breast, fancy cheese — but what keeps customers on the hook are the wide variety of soups, spreads (like Big Al’s Pimiento Cheese, one of our editor’s favorite snacks), and more that the brothers make fresh daily. It’s a unique, human-touch aspect of shopping that’s all but disappeared in the hustle-bustle ’00s. In the quaint corner store at the intersection of Broad and Savage, however, it’s still alive and well.

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