Ashley Lowder runs two of the only fireworks stands on James Island and in West Ashley. They’re illegal to sell in Charleston proper, so he’s held off on annexing his Hwy. 61 pawn shop’s property into the city to keep his twice-a-year fireworks business alive.
“We are the only one,” so he says.
This time every year, you’ll see Lowder’s stand (1738 Ashley River Rd.) and a handful of others pop up on strategic street corners around the Charleston area. Some are in repurposed shipping containers with pop-up sides. Some are in trailers set up on blocks (local code or something.) And most have some extra stars and stripes embellishment just in case you don’t notice them along your normal drive.
If you talk to locals, they know exactly where Lowder’s stand is. In the days leading up to the Fourth, Lowder says, “We’ll fill in this whole parking lot completely. We have to bring in the sheriff’s department.”
Lowder’s been running the stand for 25 years, adding a second on James Island (778 Folly Rd.) off a stretch of Folly Road that’s in the Town of James Island. But the West Ashley business is “far and away” his bread and butter, he says.
Inside the pop-up stand last week, Lowder’s buddy Don Baxley unloaded a hand truck of new stock in preparation for the week-before business. It’ll be slower for a few more days, but they’ll be ready. On busy nights, up to six people will be out there hustling the explosives. Baxley has been coming down from his home in York to help for more than 20 years, he says. (He’ll razz you if you pick the “Garnet and Black” block of fireworks over the “Death Valley” version, but as long as you’re buying, he probably doesn’t really care.)
If sales hold to recent trends, consumer fireworks sales will top $1 billion this year, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. Business is brisk, but not quite as booming as the 1990s, according to Lowder. Nobody’s spending thousands of dollars at walk-up businesses thanks to the internet, he says. The average spend at the West Ashley stand is about $75, Lowder’s right-hand man Wesley says off the top of his head. The most popular items are the mortars — the big thumpers that fire from thick cardboard tubes. Kids “always go back to the bottle rockets,” he says.
On Rivers Avenue, Trojan Bell is waiting for his shipment for the pre-Fourth weekend. You don’t want to be a fireworks stand with no fireworks.
“I don’t ever sell everything. I go get more,” he says.
This fire and gunpowder stuff is a pretty old technology, after all. They’ll keep for a few months.
Bell’s two fireworks stands, run out of modified shipping containers off Rivers Avenue (4153 Rivers Ave.) and Dorchester Road (4155 Dorchester Rd.), have a little extra flair provided by the hand-painted work of prolific North Charleston artist James Anthony.
Outside the walls of Charleston, enterprising fireworks vendors have a little more flexibility. In North Charleston, Bell takes out 90-day licenses twice each year to sell brightly colored fireworks with names like Shotgun Wedding, One Night Stand, and Mason Dixon around the Fourth of July and New Years Eve.
A general contractor by trade, Bell builds houses during the year when he’s not selling truckloads of fireworks. His latest project is just up the road, a few doors away from his family’s home along the railroad tracks in the Liberty Hill neighborhood. “It’s been good for me,” he says.
Bell used to set up shop in Berkeley County, but returned to North Charleston in recent years as growth took hold in the area where he grew up. On Rivers Avenue, Bell will go through a bunch of Roman candles and those shells that were also popular in West Ashley.
“They’re fun, man,” he says. “Who doesn’t wanna see a good fireworks show?”
Getting up from his seat, Bell walks to the door of his corrugated container. Truck’s here. More fireworks.