Local business done right
By Emily Havener
Lawson, Parker and Caroline Walters outside the King Street location of Two Cumberland. Image provided.
Retail business in Charleston has changed so much in recent years as to be almost unrecognizable to those who’ve lived here for any significant amount of time. And yet there are those special local stores that have managed to last and to thrive. Martha Walters’s ladies boutique, Two Cumberland, is a shining example of local, family-owned-and-run business done right.
Martha started Two Cumberland more than a decade ago. She grew it out of the portable monogramming business she started while taking her daughters to horse shows. “Everything riders have is monogrammed,” she said. “I bought an Airstream, gutted it and built it out as a store.” Soon she was creating her own products and selling them.
This birthed a storefront at the original location of 2 Cumberland St., on the corner of Concord, but foot traffic wasn’t ideal for a business trying to grow, and a new location was essential. About eight months later Martha found a spot on King Street, and the store moved. “We were one of the first to take a jump and try a second-floor spot on King,” she said. “It was a great little spot, had great foot traffic and we started to grow the brand.”
The brand did so well that six years ago she began looking for a second location. Bowman Place shopping center in Mount Pleasant was revamping, and the owner was willing to give them a chance despite their being the only local business. A year later they found an available ground-floor location on Upper King at number 455, and the downtown branch found its long-term home.
Now with three brick-and-mortar locations — on King Street, in Mount Pleasant and in Spartanburg — Two Cumberland is about to fully launch its online store. “We’re treating this online store like it is our fourth store,” Martha said. “A lot of stuff online will be available in stores, but we are having online exclusives.”
Central to Two Cumberland’s identity is the idea that locals support each other. The first part of this is carrying local products, which Martha does in abundance, including Oyster Candle Company candles, Old Whaling Co. body butter and Teza jewelry. “If you come to me and you’re trying to start a local company, I’ll buy it,” Martha said. “Especially if you’re a woman trying to start a business, I’m all in.”
Martha Walters inside her Mount Pleasant store. Image by Ali Powell.
The second part is working with locals to highlight Charleston as a wonderful place to live, shop and visit. They have collaborated with Tommy Dew, who gave away walking tours at a blogger party to generate buzz for their website relaunch, which featured a brand-new photo campaign of models wearing Two Cumberland clothing in various locations around Charleston. Some of their pieces are also named after Charleston’s most well-known locations: the Rainbow Row midi dress, Spring Street shorts and Maybank tennis skirt, to name just a few of the bright, breezy and sophisticated pieces available online. Local photographer Travis Dew has taken a number of their photos.
Ali Powell, the social media manager for Two Cumberland, supplies her own talented photography as well and manages the store’s online and social media presence, which is especially strong on Instagram as @two_cumberland, where they have partnered with Five Loaves Café and Goat Sheep Cow for past giveaways. Martha says Ali “is phenomenal at what she does.”
Their new “Love Local” blog also focuses on picking the perfect outfit for an outing in a specific location in Charleston. Their first featured spot was Shem Creek, with photos by Travis Dew and a giveaway at Waters Edge. Martha says they are going to take it a step further with clothing capsules — the restaurant capsule, for example, which will feature models wearing dining-out attire at local restaurants. The goal is to create publicity for multiple businesses at once, locals helping other locals out.
Each of Two Cumberland’s locations has its own personality. King Street naturally caters more to tourists and groups like wedding and bachelorette parties. “I think the store really has a fun vibe,” Martha says. “The minute they come in we serve them champagne and mini beers for the men who are shopping with their wives.”
Mount Pleasant caters in particular to repeat local customers. “We have so many gifts in Mount Pleasant,” said Martha. “I have people who come in and knock out their Christmas list in one go.” She keeps customers’ gift lists on file so they can remember what they gave each year. “We’ll help you shop. Come back in a day, we’ll have it all wrapped, labeled, ready to roll.”
Two Cumberland offers an eclectic selection of gifts in addition to fashion for all occasions. Image by Charleston Mercury Staff.
This is the Two Cumberland difference, or as Martha put it, “That’s why a local boutique beats a chain store. When people come in, our girls actually wait on you. We speak to every single person who walks in this store. You wouldn’t let someone walk in your house and not greet them and show them around. When people come in they need to be greeted; when someone leaves they need to be thanked. That’s key.”
Martha attributes her success throughout the pandemic to her core group of loyal and dependable employees. She has nothing but praise for them: “Even during the pandemic, they were shooting videos, trying to get everything online; they never missed a day of work.” Maddy Foster, a Wofford graduate, manages the Spartanburg store like it’s her own, according to Martha. Her daughters — Parker, Caroline and Lawson — also work for her, helping to defray the employee shortage many Charleston businesses are experiencing. Martha’s husband, John, who is the chief of emergency services for Roper Hospital, helps with any heavy lifting, which has increased lately as they all work to store inventory and get the online shop off and running.
“It’s a family thing. I just live, breathe and eat my store,” Martha said. “I am there every single day, and I think you have to be.” Her oldest daughter, Parker, wants to take over the stores eventually. “She’s got a great eye. I’ve started to let her help with the buying. I love buying! People ask, ‘How do you know what to buy?’ and I just buy what I like and what I know will sell. I’m constantly looking for new products.”
Although the buying is fun, it’s also essential — Two Cumberland doesn’t keep inventory for long. Customers learn they have to come in about once a week to catch new and seasonal products before they’re gone. “We put new inventory out every day and it flips so fast because it’s reasonable.” Customers can also request personal text notifications for styles and products they like so they can be sure not to miss anything.
In this way and many more, Two Cumberland focuses on being accessible to every shopper. “Our price range is anywhere from a $48 dress on up. I want anybody who walks in my store I be able to buy something,” Martha said. “We really have nothing over $200 right now, although we’re looking at picking up some higher-end lines going into the holidays.
“Going into fall, I feel like we can’t buy enough dresses to wear to parties and weddings,” she added. “I know that COVID is booming but so is social activity. And we have to live our lives; we have to get back to normal. People are tired of sweatpants. They want to put on decent clothes; it just makes you feel better.”
One of her favorite parts of the business is being able to recommend a piece to someone that really works for them. “You can just see it on their face. They just feel good. Clothes just make you feel good.”
More about Martha
Martha, who attended Ashley Hall and then Dallas’s Southern Methodist University, has an eclectic entrepreneurial background. For a year, she owned the Magic Cheese Food Truck with a friend, Devon Spence, that offered gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. “We had a bit of a cult following, but it was tough work!” Martha acknowledged. “My husband said what made our grilled cheese so good was Devon’s tears! I think she cried every day grilling in that hot food truck.”
For many years Martha worked for SEWE, where her husband, John, is still on the board of directors. She says they go all in every year, renting rooms at Charleston Place and riding the bus to exhibits with a group of friends. She also loves to go boating to the sandbar by the Morris Island Lighthouse.
Five years ago the Walters family had the unique opportunity to visit Israel with Al and Kathryn Phillips and their son Will. “Talk about walking in the footsteps of Jesus! To actually go and be able to touch the exact spot Jesus was born was amazing and so humbling.” Martha recalled with enthusiasm rafting down the Jordan River and swimming in the Sea of Galilee, but her favorite experience was visiting the location of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and hearing it read aloud. That and her daughters teasing each other at the “Gates of Hell” at Caesarea Philippi: “One of my twins, Lawson, turned to her older sister and dead serious said, “Parker, you’re home.”