Old Charleston Fun
Literally, just off the beaten path on the way to Johns Island is my favorite newish furniture store – but don’t tell anybody. Once you see the unique and just plain fun items at the Old Charleston Trading Company, you’ll understand why I want to keep this between you and I. Their slogan is “Interesting Furniture for Interesting People.” The thing is, you have to want to find it. There are no permanent signs for this place, there are barriers in the road to prevent a left turn from Main Road, and even the street sign is missing. It’s downright hard to find on the Old Charleston Road that veers off Savannah Highway to the right as you approach the light at Bees Ferry and Rt 17. Coming from Charleston, it is literally behind the Walgreens at Main and Rt 17. But, if you like the idea of an out of the way place with items you won’t see in a big box store, this is a great destination.
It’s a quirky old building that tilts a bit and the loading dock has marvelous views of the marsh. Once inside, there is clearly a story to be told. The story is, that my friends Warren and Jim were facing a cancer diagnosis. As so many stories with cancer as the catalyst someone says something like this:
Jim: “Let’s not put things off.”
Warren: “You’re right. Let’s buy a boat.”
Jim: “Let’s open a furniture store.”
Warren: “Are you nuts? I’m gonna retire.”
Warren shared this exchange with a friend over lunch who replied, “Well, if you think of it as an adventure, it will be easier.” It had always been Jim’s dream to do reclaimed wood and re-purposed pieces, and the next thing you know they found themselves driving around Johns Island looking for an old barn or warehouse for the business.
In September of 2015, a tornado struck Johns Island and their friend’s office building was badly damaged. The building had served several purposes since the 40s including a feed store and furniture store. The current incarnation was a suite of small offices. The tornado took the roof and the water poured in. Sheetrock ceilings and had collapsed throughout, and the carpet was just as bad. All the tenants had to leave and when Warren and Jim stopped by to lend some support and encouragement, they saw the exposed rafters and duct work, expansive space bereft of walls, and islands of the original wood flooring through the soggy mess. “This could work” Jim whispered, and they began a conversation about a single tenant situation that did not include replacing the sheet rock and fluorescent lighting.
It took some time, but by Memorial Day the stubborn glued-down carpet was removed to reveal the gorgeous floors. The roof was repaired and the exposed rafters were now home to ceiling fans with incandescent lights. Inventory had arrived and been displayed and they were ready, however the building department was not. They did not yet have their certificate of occupancy (CO) and needed more as-built drawings. July brought a temporary business license and temporary CO and at least they were in business.
In his full-time job as a customs broker, Jim had developed relationships over the years with three furniture store owners. He had worked with them on the imports and they encouraged him and gave him advice along the way. He also learned from those exporting to them, some of what he needed to know on the other side of the transaction as neither he nor Warren had ever been entrepreneurs.
They found the earliest sales hard to part with at first. “That’s my furniture – I don’t want to see a space there. I had it staged just perfectly.” They were surprised to feel such ownership but delighted to make people happy. They have had such a great response and interest in seeing the inventory expand that they have already extended the space.
The clientele is now building. People seem to love the pride of discovery and that’s only half the fun. I’ve been in several times and it’s always a social thing and customers interact about the unusual items they find. There is one couple that comes from Mt. Pleasant just about every weekend to see what’s new on their way to lunch at the Tomato Shed down the road. Dogs are welcome, kids too – and if Jim sees a husband itching to go, he offers him a beer to help him linger. “It’s more fun than I thought it would be. We laugh with people all day long and tell them don’t worry about making marks on this stuff – it’s not new. It’s already got a story and you are just adding to the story.” said Warren. On our first visit, my husband and I both suggested they could charge slightly higher prices for the quality of the merchandise. When we told Warren the prices were too low, he chuckled and declared “I never want to sell anything I couldn’t afford myself.”
That brings me to their unique business model. They had dinner with those three furniture store owners who have coached them along the way back in April. They were all in Highpoint, NC for the accessories show and talked about the business. Jim and Warren talked about how they don’t pay commissions to their staff, they all make the same hourly rate and it’s a living wage. There’s no one to “close” a sale and if they are working through lunch or dinner the company brings it in and pays. They eat together like a family. They are overly accommodating to their customers, keeping the prices low, stopping by to deliver a piece on the way home and cheerfully replacing the mercury glass light fixture that broke when I lifted it from the box, I swear, with no hesitation. One store owner told them “your business model is horrible. You are never going to make money that way.”
That’s precisely why we need to keep this our little secret. After all, they have already expanded once to meet demand. How are interesting people like you and I going to find our treasures if everyone in town learns about this? Ssssshhhhh.