By Robert Salvo
A short stroll up King Street is sufficient to see that it remains the pulsing heart of Charleston’s commercial district. However, those of you who read Dan Henderson’s insightful column in the last edition of the salmon sheets — and anyone who visited the area in the last quarter of the 20th century — know this was not the case for quite some time. While King Street revitalization was a priority of local government since Joe Riley’s first mayoral campaign in 1975, changes in demography and changes in business practices laid the area low for many years.
One of the grand dames of King Street commerce was The Kerrison Dry Goods Company, better known simply as Kerrison’s. Originally founded in 1831 by C. and E. L. Kerrison, the prosperous department store weathered the War Between the States, passing from father to son until Philip Kerrison sold the business in 1892. One of the purchasing partners was 23-year old Edwin Poulnot, Sr. Within a few years, Poulnot had a controlling interest in the place, an interest since passed down through four generations.
Kerrison’s made it through many rough times. During the Great Depression the flow of patrons was so scant that a doorman was posted to watch for potential customers and signal for the lights to be turned on only as they approached. Things remained slow during the Second World War, but soon picked up again though the middle of the 20th century, and the store was regarded as one of Charleston’s finest and most popular.
Eventually, changing times forced Kerrison’s to shutter its doors, a victim of customers flocking to suburban malls and the decline of the traditional department store model. In an interview in the 1970s, Edwin Jr. stated of the King Street competition that had already closed — places like Belks and J.C. Penney — “[they] were good friends and neighbors. When they moved, one by one, we became lonesome.” By the 1990s, Kerrison’s, too, shut its doors.
The late Edwin Poulnot III, who passed away in the spring of this year, was the last Poulnot at the helm of the department store. He inherited his father’s business acumen, his deep understanding of what makes an urban environment work and his thoughtful appreciation of how to emulate the best practices of others. Daughters Dale Poulnot and Gene Poulnot Carpenter are full of stories about how, even on vacation, their father had a keen eye to how urban issues — small or large — were handled. If he saw something promising, he’d start thinking about how he could implement such a thing in Charleston.
One of these trips led to something else the Poulnots became known for: rice steamers. After WearEver stopped making their model, acquiring a traditional rice steamer became a difficult task. Edwin III was on a pleasure trip to Rio de Janeiro when he saw a similar pot for sale. He found someone to translate between Charlestonese and Portuguese, contacted the Brazilian manufacturer, showed them a Charleston rice steamer and the rest, as they say, is history. Even after Kerrison’s closed the Poulnots sold steamers for many years.
The memory of Kerrison’s is still fully intertwined with the family name, according to Edwin III’s son, David. He says anytime he meets locals of a certain age the store if the first thing they mention upon hearing his name. This is fine: Kerrison’s holds a wealth of happy memories for him. He worked at the store from the age of five, when Ms. Nelson, an employee in the toy department, would take him on as an “assistant” for an hour or so if he came to work with his father. He still recalls getting paid (16 cents — one penny, one nickel and one dime) for his labor via the store’s pneumatic tube system that connected all checkouts with a central change area upstairs.
During the store’s salad days, every floor was packed with merchandise and executive offices “were closets.” All three of Edwin III’s children agreed that what really made their father pleased was how many citizens Kerrison’s supported. Hundreds of Charlestonians had decent, middle-class jobs — many for their entire careers — because of the store. And in an era when suburbs were mushrooming, Edwin III developed Poulnot Lane, an alley off Queen Street near Colonial Lake, as a place where the middle class could afford homes downtown. Long before today’s advocacy of urban living came into vogue, the Poulnots realized that a city without breathing citizens was no city at all.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so fitting that the current generation of Poulnots — brother David and sisters Dale and Gene — have given the grand old Kerrison’s building an exciting new residential rehab. After years of sitting empty, the former store at the corner of King and Hasell is now home to some of Charleston’s most exciting new apartment homes. First brought to market early this year, as of the time of writing only one unit remains unoccupied.
Immediately upon entering the building, now called Cornerstone Apartment Homes, you are connected with the structure’s commercial past. Old store signage hangs on the walls. An impressive collection of images taken in the late 1940s shows elevations of the nearby storefronts, arranged to give the effect of taking a stroll down postwar King Street. Images of the various departments Charlestonans once perused for fashions are to be found on every floor. A few special gems, like the tables made from wood salvaged during construction and even a conference table used by Kerrison’s in the 19th century, give this place roots unlike any of the myriad of residential developments now springing up around the peninsula.
As it is October, we would be remiss if we did not mention that the building does have its own ghost. One of the reasons there is such a wealth of historical information on the building is because, in the words of Dale and Gene, Edwin III was a “packrat.” Gene recalls searching though these piles of papers for one particular document in the abandoned upstairs floors of the building. She made multiple attempts before coming downstairs to concede defeat. Implored to make just one more look, she obligingly returned to the pile. The paper she was hunting had been neatly placed on top.
“Uncle Pete,” both ladies agreed, noting a long deceased relative who had effectively spent his life working in the store and, perhaps, still clocks in occasionally. It’s fitting that the Poulnot’s admirable work for Charleston’s primary commercial corridor spans not just the generations, but metaphysical law itself.