Brothers Abe (right) and Joe Dabit help operate Charlie’s Grocery, which their dad Charlie opened in 1996 | Photos by Ruta Smith

Cornerstones  of the community

 Remnants of yesteryear’s corner stores, once as ubiquitous as horse-drawn carriages or clotheslines, linger all over downtown Charleston. Stroll past 19 Elizabeth St. and you’ll spot the fading, chunky letters of “Smith’s Grocery Meats.” Drive around the peninsula and you’ll notice dozens of shops and office spaces with slanted, corner-facing entryways originally designed for corner stores.

These shops have long played an important role in the communities they serve. In modern times, they would be key components of a live-work-play development ethic.

“Historically, a healthy diversity of uses has thrived in Charleston’s older neighborhoods because businesses serve neighborhood residents. They are woven into the local fabric,” said Cashion Drolet, Historic Charleston Foundation’s chief advocacy officer. 

Charleston’s corner stores rose in popularity in the second half of the 19th century, according to Dr. Nic Butler, historian at the Charleston County Public Library.

Before the prevalence of the corner store, he said residents shopped at the city market, a centralized place with produce, meat and more. Stores outside the market selling dry goods existed, but fresh items were only available at the market.

An 1876 state law forever changed the way residents purchased fresh food items. The law allowed merchants to sell fresh foods in individual stores, and the corner store flourished.

During this period in Charleston’s history, an influx of German immigrants moved into the area. And many opened small, corner grocery stores.

“A lot of those families came in with very modest means and worked hard … to acquire enough wealth and status to move on and do other things,” Butler said. “So a lot of those German families moved on into bigger businesses and other [immigrant]  populations in the late 19th and early 20th century, who didn’t have that kind of access to upward mobility … kind of stepped in to fill that void in the community.”

According to Butler, corner grocery stores were the first step away from centralized city-run markets and towards the big-box grocery stores of today.

A new type of space

As corner stores popped up everywhere, a new architecture developed, too. 

“Having a corner entrance is something that really didn’t evolve until the 19th century when there’s more specialized architecture,” Butler said. Prior to this, people built spaces that could serve multiple purposes. For example, residences often had a front room used for selling goods.

As the corner store form developed, the use of these spaces shifted. 

West

Kyunhea West, project and outreach manager for the New York Landmarks Conservancy in New York City, did a deep dive into the historical architecture of Charleston’s corner stores for her master’s thesis in Clemson’s architectural program.

“It’s an urban form [of architecture], where the store or business is downstairs and the family lives upstairs,” West said. “That type of architecture has been around forever. Even back to the Roman era, there’s stores with people who operated it living above. So it’s something that has transcended the centuries.”

Downtown Charleston still features many of the original corner store buildings with apartments upstairs and canted entryways, allowing easy access to the store from both sides of the building.

“I think the building type is still relevant today,” West said. “We continue to see these buildings that are preserved and turned into new businesses like pizza shops and hair salons. It’s designed for people to be able to see the entrance walking across either of the streets nearby. So maybe they’re not serving that exact same purpose they were built for originally, but I think they’re really usable today.”

Though the number of corner stores in existence has dwindled over time, some still thrive on the peninsula. 

“The ones that are still existing, I think they still play that role of primarily serving neighborhoods and residents, but also sort of bringing people together on the sidewalk for a quick chat,” HCF’s Drolet said.

Serving the neighborhood

Charlie’s Grocery on the corner of Radcliffe and Jasper streets is a prime example. Walk into this neighborhood spot on any given day and you’re sure to see groups of college students and young neighborhood residents waiting for a hot sandwich or picking up a case of beer. 

Charlie’s Grocery on Jasper Street features the unique canted entryway designed for corner stores

“The customers are just awesome,” said Abe Dabit, co-owner of Charlie’s. “Over time, you develop a really cool relationship with a lot of people who come in here and shop. It just makes the whole experience fun.”

Dabit and his brother Joseph run the day-to-day operations of the store, but their dad, Charlie, who opened the store in 1996, still has his hand in the business. 

Dabit’s father immigrated to the U.S. from Israel in the 1970s. When he moved to Charleston, he ran a large chain grocery store, but noticed the success smaller corner stores had within their neighborhoods. He took his grocery store experience and opened the small, neighborhood operation named after himself. 

“Originally, when we opened up, it was a very different neighborhood,” Abe Dabit said. “Primarily single families and younger adults, not so much college kids. Over the years, I’d say going into the 2000s, the majority of our business has been college-based. We’re slowly seeing a trend at the moment of single families buying property in the neighborhood and kind of transforming it.”

Though Charlie’s has been around for more than two decades, it’s continuously evolving to best serve residents. Dabit said he’s always asking customers what they want to see in the store. 

“It’s so convenient, but it’s also such a community place,” said Andrew Ryan, a resident who has lived in the neighborhood for five years. “When I made banana bread out of boredom during the pandemic like everyone else, I brought some to Abe and the next time I went in, he gave me something to drink while I was waiting in line. They care about their customers.”

During the pandemic, the Dabits made the most of Charlie’s canted entrance by moving a table in front of the door to take orders from customers while allowing space for social distancing.

The Dabits also operate a second Charlie’s location on Spring Street and recently renovated the original Jasper location, removing the longtime deli counter to offer more space for stocked items. Now, food like hot sandwiches and the store’s famous falafel (a family recipe from Abe and Joseph’s mom) is made in its kitchen next to the Spring Street space and carted over to Jasper Street via golf carts. 

Along with the new kitchen, Abe Dabit said they expanded the menu and added desserts, but hope to add more options in the future. 

Part of the family

Since 1922 Queen Street Grocery (above) has gone through many iterations — apothecary, grocery store and now, corner store

Other corner stores around the peninsula date back to the early 20th century, such as Queen Street Grocery, established in 1922, which celebrated 100 years this year. Over its history, it served as everything from an apothecary to a grocery store. Today, people can stop in to pick up local beers, some grocery items or sit down to enjoy crepes, sandwiches and smoothies. 

Burbage’s Grocery on the corner of Broad and Savage streets has long been a neighborhood one-stop shop. Current owners Lisa and George Bowen were told by the previous owner that it first opened in 1946. 

The Burbage family owned stores throughout the Charleston area, but this location operated as more of a butcher and grocery store, said Lisa Bowen. 

“Back in the day, they did a lot of delivery and phone orders to people in the neighborhood,” she said. “I have a cool painting in the store that was done from a favorite photo of mine where you can see the groceries lined up, stacked to the ceiling. They would actually deliver to the houses and go inside and stock the cabinets.”

Burbage’s Grocery stays true to its roots as a neighborhood go-to, offering hot sandwiches, fresh produce and more

Burbage’s offers a slightly different range of products today including a selection of fresh produce, snacks, drinks, premade food items (like the highly popular chicken salad) and made-to-order sandwiches.

“Times have changed,” Bowen said, “but people still need simple, quick access. It’s still a generational store. We still see grandchildren whose parents or grandparents used to shop the store. So it’s definitely maintained its generational relationship to the neighborhood.”

Burbage’s Grocery is located on the corner of Broad and Savage streets

Much like the bygone corner stores of yesteryear, places like Burbage’s are still family-run. The Bowens operate the store with other family members and neighborhood residents. And, they’ve added their own spin to long-standing Burbage’s tradition.

“When babies [in the neighborhood] were born, the families would stop by Mr. Burbage’s,” Lisa Bowen said. “And he would weigh them on this big scale over the meat counter. That was a tradition. Our tradition is we give away onesies.

“We don’t have the scale any longer,” she said, laughing. “But we do welcome new people to the neighborhood. Welcome to the family, because you’re part of the family when you shop Burbage’s.”

Convenience is always in style

All over the peninsula, residents continue to support local places with fresh produce like the Veggie Bin on Spring Street, sandwiches and goods, such as J&W Grocery + Grill on the corner of Pitt and Wentworth streets, and snacks and necessities as found in the longstanding College Corner at 1 Coming Street.

“The city has kind of placed a priority on these neighborhood-scale commercial uses in the Preservation Plan, which was adopted some years ago,” Drolet said. “We definitely advocated for that, what I would call a neighborhood commercial use.”

Even the traditional corner store buildings that no longer serve as corner stores play an important role in the community, West said.

“I love to see an old corner store building and it’s been revitalized and is a thriving business today. That’s what they were intended to be,” she said.

Drolet added, “We want to make sure that [the city] emphasizes that these are important [spaces]. They’re important historically, but they’re also important for our future.”


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