Almost every club or organization needs money to carry out its activities. When local sports teams, youth groups, community theatres, music clubs, veterans’ organizations and others reach out for donations and sponsorship, they turn to one loyal and dependable entity: local merchants.
If you missed Small Business Saturday on Nov. 28, there is still plenty of time to shop local, and Old Town Bluffton is often the first place people think of for local shopping.
The Calhoun Street area and The Promenade are packed to the gills with items reflecting the “Bluffton State of Mind,” beginning with area artists.
Artist Murray Sease, who exhibits at La Petite Gallerie, says art lovers are going to find unique local art in Bluffton’s galleries.
“Bluffton is so lucky to have so many talented local artists. I think that is what makes our galleries really special,” said Sease, who paints in oils.
Many of her works are inspired by Bluffton scenes, including farmers market paintings, street scenes, the wildlife and “not so wildlife,” she said.
“I have a large goat painting right now. I just finished it. I call my art ‘Fresh Paint’ because it sure is fresh,” said Sease. “They come to the gallery right off the easel.”
A couple of the newest gallery members are acrylics artist Kristin Griffis, who is inspired by music, and abstract painter Rose Cofield, who gets many of her ideas from architecture, Sease said.
But don’t stop with La Petite Gallery, she said. Look around the other galleries as well.
“We have wonderful pottery (in Bluffton). There is a lot of sculpture, including some here in our garden. Several of the other galleries have unique outdoor art and sculpture. The Red Piano has lots of big bronze sculptures,” said Sease. “I mean, you just can’t beat Bluffton for the local art galleries.”
Just down the sidewalk from La Petite Gallerie is a new bead shop that offers jewelry options for all ages. In September, owners Steve and Kathleen Mardell opened High Tide Beads next door to The Store. The bead and jewelry shop had operated on Hilton Head for a number of years. Visitors can make their own jeweled creations or purchase beads, necklaces and bracelets that Steve has already created.
Mary O’Neill, marketing director of the Old Town Bluffton Merchant’s Association, said shopping in Old Town is a healthier “mall-ternative.”
“It’s safe shopping because our shops are all outside and not in a mall, hence it’s a mall-ternative. You’re walking from shop to shop where masks are required, and we have lots of wonderful things to offer,” O’Neill said. “Take a stroll through our quaint and decorated streets, sit a while in our many little parks, take a tour at the Historic Heyward House, and enjoy a respite in our restaurants after a day of shopping.”
In addition to dining opportunities, the Promenade has a wealth of shopping options from home decor and clothing boutiques to wine and gifts. Reminisce – one of the area’s most popular sports memorabilia and gift shops – will be closing its doors Christmas Eve after 33 years, the past four in Bluffton. If you have a sports lover on your list, this is the place to go.
In Bluffton Village, a new store has opened next door (and connected to) to the Juice Hive. Lowcountry Made offers a range of items created, painted, stitched and others made by local artisan and artists.
Owner Katie Silva, who also hosts artisan markets on Saturdays at various locations around town, said, “The mission of Lowcountry Made is the success of its makers.”
Beyond Old Town, Bluffton’s shopping centers contain locally owned small businesses that sell jewelry, unique gifts, bicycles, garden items – nearly anything one could want.
Nancy Landwehr, owner of The Spirited Hand, said she thinks she has built a loyal customer base since the beginning of the pandemic. Open every day whether there were customers or not, Landwehr maintained pandemic protocols, and added curbside pick-up and shipping for her customers. Now she is busy wrapping and shipping her customers’ purchases on a regular basis.
“I think people are somewhat comfortable with the store because we have the door open, it’s usually not so crowded, and we continue to sanitize. We’ve been really thrilled and grateful,” she said. “They’ll find something different here. … We’re still doing special orders because people are looking for something special, and if I can get it, I do it. And because my stuff is American hand-crafted, I can usually get it.”
If you get a piece of original art and it needs a frame, take it to The Great Frame Up in Plantation Park, locally owned by Stephen Ball. He said he has probably 800 framing choices for any kind of art.
“When you get the painting for Christmas, bring it on in and we’ll pick out the best frame for you to compliment your picture,” Ball said.
For artists seeking quality reproductions of their works, Ball said, “We have the only museum quality scanner in 40×60 flatbed in the Lowcountry. With that, we scan art, and can make giclee prints on canvas or fine art paper.”
The frame store has and continues to maintain the strictest precautions while they frame works of art, but they don’t have the issues experienced by one of the most vulnerable local businesses: restaurants.
“The pandemic has affected our business, and not in a positive way,” said Charlie Sternburgh, owner of the May River Grill seafood restaurant on May River Road.
“It’s really changed our whole industry. The restaurant industry, as I see it, will be difficult for most restaurants to make it through January because this is our hardest time now,” Sternburgh said. “Our revenue has been down more than 75%, but we’ve learned to cope with it by having to watch hours, food costs to the max, and anything we buy is out of necessity.”
Although the governor recently authorized that restaurants could go back to full capacity, Sternburgh said he is maintaining the 50% capacity as best he can, and not trying to do more then he should.
“We take reservations and hope people come in, eat and go so we can get the place sanitized and reset. You hope people will move, but they’ve not been out for a long time, and they want to enjoy themselves,” he said.
In the past, Sternburgh said Thanksgiving week would be among the top 10 best days of the revenue year. “This year, it was a complete disaster, and if I picked 10 of my worst days, that would be in that week the worst that we’ve ever had,” he said.
May River Grill and many other local restaurants offer gift certificates and take-out options.
“We know that this year, more than ever, our local businesses need us and need our support,” said Charlie Clark, vice president of communications for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and Visitor and Convention Bureau. “We know everyone is shopping online, but don’t look past your local merchants. Because of the pandemic, they have pivoted and many have online offerings that you can take advantage of. There is nothing like 2020 to show you how intertwined you are. It’s been nice to see the community step up. We’ve always known we are a supportive community.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.