It's a brisk fall morning, and Charles Davis Jr. and his wife, Tiffane, are standing in their new store, "A Polished Man," on West Washington Street in downtown Greenville.
The bright, clean interior design lets the store's products shine. Walls lined with colorful pocket squares, snappy bow ties, high-quality socks and underwear. Shelves stacked neatly with men's travel accessories and self-care products.
The brick-and-mortar men's lifestyle accessories store has been open only since Oct. 15, and the Davises, who are Greenville natives, have felt welcomed downtown since day 1, they said.
"We've had a diverse group of customers who've come in to support us," Tiffane said.
While the support is, in a lot of ways, organic, the city of Greenville is also making special efforts to promote small businesses like "A Polished Man" this fall.
While many cities participate in Small Business Saturday, a national push branded by American Express to "shop small" the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Greenville has a more localized way of encouraging shoppers to support small business owners.
The city has kicked off a shop-downtown campaign with ads that will run in local media outlets through the end of the year, city spokesperson Beth Brotherton said. The ad campaign will also be on window clings at select vacant Main Street locations.
The city has custom shopping bags that it will share with downtown merchants, and staff are working on a downtown gift card program, she said.
And while city officials and staff always encourage people to "shop local," the city is also looking to bolster the market this year by filling vacant retail space downtown.
Downtown Greenville's retail vacancy rate down from last year
Investing in Greenville's downtown retail has been an area of renewed focus for the city over the past year.
While Greenville is growing, Main Street is still the city's crown jewel, lined with dozens of local and regional shops that attract locals and tourists alike.
As with any business district, downtown's occupancy fluctuates. Main Street's retail vacancy rate stands at 5.28%, according to a quarterly report released by Colliers International in August 2021. That's lower than last year, when the vacancy rate was 9.31% during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To help bolster existing shops and fill empty space, the city has hired a consultant, The Retail Coach, to help recruit more retailers. But they don't want just any retailers; city officials are looking for businesses that share Greenville's values, not just national brands that might be missing from downtown, city councilmember at-large Dorothy Dowe said during a council meeting.
"We are not trying to be King Street (in Charleston)," Dowe said. "That is not our vision.
"We want to provide a retail experience for those who come to visit Greenville — our tourism population — but at the same time staying true to our uniqueness and the people that already live here who also come downtown."
Greenville's character and foot traffic give the city an edge in recruiting those kinds of businesses over other cities in the Carolinas, consultant Charles Parker said.
While national chains offer good advertising and draw people downtown, the city's "sweet spot" is finding non-national retailers who are successful in other cities and ready to take the leap into another market, Mayor Knox White said.
"Some of our best breakthroughs have been retailers that sort of meet this definition," he said, referencing Mast General Store, which expanded into Greenville from Valle Crucis, North Carolina.
The city is also making efforts to maintain affordable rent downtown for smaller and independent brands.
Retail space is going for about $34 to $35 per square foot in the heart of downtown and about $30 in the West End, Parker said. That's on the higher end, but it's not as high as in other locations like Charleston, where the going rate is closer to $45.
"In that sense, we're still really competitive if they're looking for a premium market in South Carolina and being a first to the state," Parker said.
To help keep space attainable and rent affordable, city staff meet "constantly" with downtown building owners, said Merle Johnson, the city's economic and community development director.
Those conversations help inform investors on what the city would like to see in those spaces and helps ensure prices are in line with market data, Johnson said.
Minority representation important, owner says
At 209 Main St., Greenville Soy Candle Co. is opening its doors for business around 10 a.m. Nov. 3.
Formerly known as Magnolia Scents, the store is rebranded with a new sign and new packaging after owner Tina Rodgers bought out her partners, who were ready to fold the location during the pandemic year.
It hasn't been the easiest year for Greenville Soy Candle Co., and the business is still recovering from the pandemic, Rodgers said. The store shut down at the end of March and reopened on a limited basis at the end of June.
Staff didn't resume candle-making classes again until September, which are "a huge chunk" of the store's business, Rodgers said.
"It was very scary for us," Rodgers said. "It was definitely a 'by-the-skin-of-our-teeth' situation that we made it through."
But Rodgers and her tiny team of four employees have learned to "create their own pull" to attract customers to the store, which is near Hyatt Regency Greenville.
That includes offering weekend candle-making classes, which consistently sell out; making seasonal scents; running a candle club and encouraging customers to bring in empty jars for in-house refills. The rebrand has given her and her team more creative freedom, she said.
Rodgers said she likes her location on Main Street, where the store has been for seven years.
"I know my neighbors. We support each other," she said.
She was also glad to hear the city is making efforts to recruit more retail nearby.
"It would be good to fill some of the spaces," she said.
Over on West Washington Street, it took the Davises 14 months of work to bring their dream of a store to fruition.
As they selected products and solidified branding, they toured multiple spaces downtown before they found the right one.
They knew they were looking for a location that would be intimate yet accessible to foot traffic. At their spot on West Washington Street, they can truly cater to a "live, work, play" lifestyle for customers, they said.
Whether offering a shoe shine or the "VIP Pocket Square Exchange" membership, the Davises want to emphasize self-care, quality and confidence at their store, they said.
They also want to pay it forward for other first generation college students. The Davises are partnering with the Greenville community and local schools to donate "Confidence Boxes" to boys — a small kit with menswear accessories and positive expressions of affirmation.
The impact of the Davises' business is not lost on them.
Charles calls their warm reception downtown "an opportunity for downtown Greenville to understand the importance of representation."
"We understand we are a minority business, and we understand the need for more minority businesses in downtown Greenville," he said.
They hope to keep developing and expanding their brand with support from the Greenville community.
"We want the brand to have the opportunity to develop and thrive into the business that we know it can be, from our minds to our heart," he said.
Macon Atkinson is the city watchdog reporter for The Greenville News. She's powered by long runs and strong coffee. Follow her on Twitter @maconatkinson.
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Small Business Saturday: Greenville starts downtown shopping campaign