Bygone shops of Church Street: Part One
By Missy Schenck
Margaret Riley, founder of one of Church Street’s earliest retail locations. Image courtesy of Jane Riley Gambrell.
For generations, Church Street and the alleys off of it were a vibrant and varied center of commerce in the heart of downtown Charleston. Steeped in Southern traditions, each shop was known for its unique characteristics and loyal, local following. A variety of retail shops, antique stores and art galleries lined the street from Broad to Tradd offering something for everyone from birth to octogenarian.
Porgy & Bess, Margaret Riley’s Dress Shop, Stoll’s Alley Shop, The Boutique, and Terrell’s clothed ladies, teenagers to adults, and 85 Church Street (later 82 Church) was the place to shop for children. Mostly run by local ladies who knew everyone in town, it was a comforting feeling to walk into one of these establishments and be called by name or even called out if the owner felt we were dawdling. Quality, classic fashions were available and catered to some of the best dressed Charlestonians since the early 1920s.
Margaret Riley’s Dress Shop
Margaret “Habby” Riley was born in 1898, the oldest of nine Riley children. She lived at 27 Tradd St., her family home, with her two sisters, Emily and Anne, both educators, and her brother, Oliver. Although none of these siblings married, they were an integral part of the lives of their nieces and nephews according to Susanne Riley Emge, the daughter of Joseph Patrick Riley and Helen Schachte Riley and sister of former mayor Joseph Patrick Riley, Jr. Susanne said, “They helped raise us. Each one had a different personality and we learned a lot from them.”
Margaret Riley was a trailblazer and her dress shop, located on the corner of Church and St. Michael’s Alley, was one of the earliest retail establishments of many to populate Church Street. “It was a very welcoming, comfortable shop with an open room and beautiful furniture. Customers felt at home there,” said Jane Riley Gambrell, Margaret Riley’s niece and sister of Susanne Emge.
“A dress shop describes it perfectly,” remarked Susanne. “My aunt always had a flare for fashion and parlayed her sense of style into creating a successful business. She carried conservative, quality ladies’ clothing — mostly dresses or dresses with jackets that she called ‘drinking and praying dresses.’ These were all in the front of the shop along with sweaters, beautiful scarfs and hats. Evening dresses and wedding gowns were in the back of the shop. My aunt had a wonderful seamstress, Ella, who occupied the rear of the building and offered her customers alterations on the spot.” Randy Cabell remembers fondly spending time at the shop with her grandmother, Helen Witsell, who worked there for decades with her dear friend, Helen O’Hagen.
In time, Margaret Riley’s Dress Shop had a following of people who were regular clients and when Miss Riley went to New York to market, she shopped for clothes with them in mind. On one such trip, she took over dressing everyone for her niece, Susanne’s, 1962 wedding. “She came home from New York with a wedding dress for me, bridesmaid dresses and a dress for my mother,” recalled Susanne. “As a knowledgeable fashion person, she felt it was her contribution to the wedding and she loved being able to do it.”
Otis Conklin bought Margaret Riley’s Dress Shop at some time in the early 1970s. As the owner of Conklin’s Style shop and a wise businessman, he kept the name of Margaret Riley’s Dress Shop for his new acquisition. Eventually, the shop closed and other retail businesses tried their hand at the location. Today, it houses an art gallery.
Porgy & Bess
Above, Porgy & Bess models Caroline Hutson, Bebe Hutson Sikkema and Gaul Gilmore. Image courtesy of Anne Hutson.
On down the street were Porgy & Bess located in two adjoining historic buildings at 89 and 91 Church St. The building has a colorful history from being a black tenement for many years and the backdrop for the famous Dubose Heyward novel and George Gershwin opera by the same name. Once known as Cabbage Row because the shop fronts had racks holding vegetables for sale by the residents, Heyward took journalistic license with the name and changed it to Catfish Row for his book. Porgy, the crippled black beggar on whom Heyward based his novel, resided in the tenement sometime during the first part of the 20th century.
When the property, then known as Catfish Row Snack Bar, became available in 1951, Mary B. Hutson and Dorothy M. Small envisioned a ladies’ sportswear/town-and-country shop —appropriately dubbed Porgy and Bess. Since Dorothy Heyward, DuBose’s wife, was a friend, permission was easily obtained to use the name. The ladies often said the name kept them in the limelight, especially with the tourists.
The two young co-owners were newly married and did not have children at the time and wanted something fun to do. Neither one of them envisioned themselves as a career woman, nor had they ever held a full-time job or completed more than a year of college. Their husbands, W. Elliott Hutson, a realtor, and Oscar J. Small, an accountant, agreed to finance their initial venture. They traveled to existing shops to gather ideas and then to New York to buy inventory.
The opening of the shop was a huge achievement and through time became a well- known fixture on Church Street. The inventory was strictly sportswear — sweaters, skirts, Bermuda shorts and traditional blouses with name brands like McMullen, Villager and Ladybug. In a 1983 Post and Courier article Mrs. Hutson was quoted as saying, “The first day was so successful that half the inventory was gone by the time the shop closed its doors. We were a lot busier than we thought we would be and never thought we would be working on Christmas Eve or Saturdays.”
The shop continued to grow, and in 1954 the adjoining building became available and the two women expanded their store, calling one side Porgy and the other side Bess. Porgy was designated as the shop for gifts, a limited selection of men’s clothing and Bass Weejuns. Bess remained a shop for women’s clothing and expanded into formal wear and accessories.
Porgy & Bess holds so many fond memories for me. It was a shop that clothed me for decades. The Christmas sale was often standing room only on December 26 with ladies changing and trying on clothes even out in the back alley. Obviously, modesty was not an issue — there was a race to the clothes. A cherished Christmas sale purchase of mine was a red double-breasted wool coat with a removable raccoon fur collar. The coat is long gone, but the raccoon collar continues to be a throwback fashion accessory for my daughters and reminds me of Porgy and Bess.
The ladies who worked at Porgy & Bess were our friends’ mothers or sisters — Mrs. Watson, Mrs. Hall and their daughters were all familiar faces in the shop. Everyone lived close by and would ride or walk to the shops. Families had house accounts and would take home bags of clothes on approval to try on and decide what to return. It was a very trustworthy arrangement and one of the first places I felt shopping independence as a teenager.
Bass Weejuns were the shoes to have and Porgy and Bess was the only place in town that carried them. Elizabeth Pritchard Bowles related a dear Christmas story to me about a pair of Weejuns she and her sister, Julie, bought for their father. “We decided that if Daddy had a pair of Weejuns, he would be the coolest father in town. We both saved up all of our money and went to Porgy and Bess to buy him a pair for Christmas. To this day, I believe he wore those shoes every day just for us and he was the coolest father in town.”
Terrell’s models Julia Foxworth, Anne Smith Hutson, Caroline Simons Finnerty and Mary LeMacks Scarborough. Image courtesy of Anne Hutson.
Terrell’s, established by Mrs. Terrell Busbee (Helen) — hence, the origin of its name, catered to the teen scene. The shop was known for its preppy fashions for the young adult lady. Cassie Connor Nagel and Adela Holmes Stoney purchased Terrell’s from Mrs. Busbee in the early 1970s. They owned it together for five years and then Cassie bought out Mrs. Stoney’s half of the shop.
“Terrell’s was just fun,” said Cassie. “It was like a party every day. We often served hot chocolate or tea and even afternoon toddies. Everybody knew each other. Our customers were friends and many of them lived close to the shop.” Kathy Hanahan Rike worked with Cassie and Della at Terrell’s and agreed that it was more fun than work.
“My father was from the South and most of his life served in the military,” added Cassie. “In 1966, we moved to Charleston in my senior year of high school after living in Germany and France. It was like being a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. My friends were on their way to communes in California and I was making my debut in Charleston. We lived on Tradd Street just across from the Stoney family and Della was like another mother to me. Owning the shop with her was a special time. My mother loved to sew and did all the alterations for the shop. She also worked at The Boutique and taught needlepoint classes at Cabbage Row Shop. She rotated so much between all the stores that once a customer asked her if she had a twin who worked at another shop on Church Street.
“My son, André, was born in 1979 and I would take him to work with me. Friends would bring their babies with them to buy clothes and put their child in the playpen with him. André was thoroughly entertained. In the 1980s I opened a second shop in the Rainbow Market area. After a while, motherhood, two shops and high rents became too much and I decided to close the stores.”
Stay tuned for Part Two in February!
Missy Craver Izard Schenck was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina with her husband, Sandy Schenck, where their family runs a summer camp.