Did you know the Latin translation for Bluffton is “Babbie”?
Well, not really. But it could have been.
If you don’t know this name, let me introduce you to Mrs. Elizabeth “Babbie” Cunningham Paris Guscio, often credited as being the visionary of Bluffton, the “wizard behind the curtain,” or perhaps the front porch.
Long before the arrival of gated communities, farm-to-table brunches, gallery co-ops, and luxury boutiques, Bluffton adopted a spirited, ambitious gal whose adoration of family and devotion to community inspired her to organize many of the annual events we enjoy today.
The catalyst of Bluffton’s transformation is The Store – the quintessential general store with the most recognized front porch in town, located at the intersection of Calhoun and Lawrence streets, where the Farmers Market ends in Old Town Bluffton.
This center point of commerce and connection is celebrating its 40th year under Babbie’s proprietorship.
“Babbie” is also synonymous for “character,” and there’s a whole lot of that packed into this tiny but mighty shopkeeper. Just a breath away from a delightful laugh, she’s mortared her internal strength by life’s experiences and strong ties to family that can be witnessed through dedication to her town, devotion to its residents, and preservation of her iconic store.
Vibrant, warm and willfully opinionated, Babbie has defined Bluffton’s laid-back lifestyle for half a century by resisting anyone who takes themselves too seriously. You’ll find her behind the counter of The Store casually enveloped in an oversized button-down shirt and tennis shoes, decked in strands of beaded necklaces with wrists and fingers stacked in jeweled bangles and rings.
She surrounds herself with an eclectic array of items for sale of the variety she describes as, “really cool (stuff) that you can’t find anywhere else,” ready to ladle out stock pots of generosity to family, friends, neighbors and strangers.
Drafted in the South by a family passionate in love and professional pursuits, Babbie’s “hippy-dippy” nomadic parents’ “fancy-schmancy” upbringing no longer held its appeal. Their lifestyle bounced Babbie and her siblings to Savannah, Atlanta and Athens, Georgia, eventually ending up on a farm.
Her parents’ eccentric approach to parenting contrasted their stiff Victorian backgrounds which gifted Babbie an open mind – a mindset that is brave, experimental, curious, and accepting of herself and others. Her name was bestowed very early in life when her brother struggled to pronounce “Elizabeth.”
Babbie arrived in Bluffton with her husband Don and young family in the early ’70s, still tipsy from years of living abroad, having adventures no longer possible, such as camping underneath the Eiffel Tower.
Though her husband worked on the far end of Hilton Head Island, they chose Bluffton as home – purchasing the only inhabitable house for sale. Back then, the town had more mold than charm.
Bluffton had but 600 residents and the pace was so slow, swaying Spanish moss caught by a breeze was the only movement.
But, Babbie was a forward thinker. “I saw no drawbacks. My children loved growing up here,” she said. “They were always covered in mud. I saw potential everywhere but it took others a while to see it.”
Once in Bluffton, Babbie committed herself by growing her family and purchasing the abandoned general store adjacent to the old post office and barber shop.
There were, of course, challenges along the way, but Babbie felt she had been planted at the corner of Calhoun Street like a beloved live oak and was determined to make a way and thrive. “When you put down roots, you can’t just pull up the tree,” she reasoned. She focused her attention not on the challenges of running the store but on the growth and potential happening around her, taking note of the artists and crafts people floating around the area.
Babbie loves art almost as much as she loves family. Blessed with a trained eye for talent (though claiming to have none herself), and in an effort to bring more visibility and exposure to the areas, artists, she organized several events such as MayFest, the annual street festival that takes place in May and runs perpendicular to the May River.
Once a curated collection of Babbie’s favorite artists, whose work and wares were on display in The Store’s front yard, the event has now grown and stretched down Calhoun Street to include more than 200 tented vendors.
She also originated the annual Christmas, Easter and Fourth of July parades, the Bluffton Flower Show, the River Regatta, and so many more she can’t remember them all.
It’s impressive how someone so caring, focused and dedicated can make advancements without ruffling a single feather along the way.
May her legacy be summed up in her own words: “There’s no such thing as too much effort for my community. I hope that all of us can be surrounded by our children and families.”
From those of us who have had the distinct pleasure of your company and support, thank you, Babbie.
Katie Konner of Bluffton is an artist, designer, maker, entrepreneur and, now, freelance writer.