Celebrating Independent Businesses on Main Street

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If you are a Baby Boomer like me, you may miss the anticipation of a Saturday in your hometown downtown.  My parents would drop me and my friends off on Main Street to spend the day.  Our first stop would be the local independent record store where we could listen to the latest music on headphones in a listening booth and decide which “45” vinyls we were going to buy.  Then we headed to the locally owned department store to make a wish list of the latest styles from Bobbie Brooks and buy the newest penny loafers.  Our last stop would be at the locally owned pharmacy/soda fountain with its cool tile floors, spinning stools and “soda jerks” sporting their white paper hats.  We loved our banana splits, root beer floats and ice cold Coca-Cola from the fountain, with crushed ice, of course. Good-bye weekly allowance.

The changes that have taken place in our downtowns during the past 30 to 40 years have had an impact on the social and economic value of what we believe makes our places unique. That is one of the reasons the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized the need to build a program to respond to those changes.  The Trust and The National Main Street Center have long recognized the importance of our downtowns as obvious places to encourage and grow entrepreneurship – especially home grown places like Guerin’s Pharmacy located in Summerville, South Carolina, ”the birthplace of sweet tea and Southern hospitality."  Summerville has been a Main Street South Carolina community since 1992 and is located 24 miles outside of Charleston, S.C.  Guerin’s Pharmacy, the oldest pharmacy in the state has operated since 1871 and they continue to pride themselves on providing the best customer service to both shoppers and patients.

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Dr. Schwettman, a Charleston pharmacist, moved his business to Summerville during the civil war. Upon returning to Summerville, after completing his service to his country, Dr. Henry C. Guerin purchased the Summerville side of the business and Dr. Schwettman returned to Charleston.  The business passed from father to son, Dr. Joseph A. Guerin.  Dr. Herbert F. Dunning worked with Dr. Joseph A. Guerin from whom he purchased the business. Charles H. Dunning, Jr. began working for his uncle and Dr. Joseph A. Guerin at the age of 12 and purchased the business from his uncle's estate in 1975. Today his daughter, Barbara A. Dunning, is the pharmacist in charge and Charles Dunning is semi-retired working part-time.

And so the story continues adding wonderful character to the heart of Summerville and a Saturday afternoon is not complete without a stop at this landmark business on the town square.  If you want to visit a locally owned, historic drugstore, you must travel to Summerville to see this one.  The tin ceiling is intact, the fountain is still operates and you can enjoy a malted or a scoop of your favorite ice cream. The store also boast “the best candy counter in town” featuring all your favorite candy bars, gum, and the hard to find such as rock candy, Neccos, Smarties, Mary Janes, Squirrel Nuts and many more.

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Guerin’s carved wooden prescription form, with the mirrored background, inset with stained glass is still on display.  The Guerin family home was located next door but now houses two businesses which add to the diversity of this quaint downtown. The local Main Street program, Summerville DREAM, provides support by promoting shopping and living local, which in turn, encourages strong economic health, local pride, quality of life and a strong community identity. The area possesses a wealth of physical, historical and cultural heritage, much of which can found on the town square of Summerville.

As we mourn the loss of any business that closes in our downtowns, we especially miss each independent business that is forced to close its doors, no matter the reason.  While so many consumers choose to shop where they can find the best value, there are special values that the independent store owners provide that the corporate chains cannot.  Most tend to hire services from other local business owners and also tend to offer more local products, which means more jobs for those folks producing the inventory such as local music, food and crafts. Perhaps most importantly, personal service and social interaction that can be found in Guerin’s and stores like it across the country cannot be replicated.  It is the people who own, work, visit, shop and stay awhile that make these businesses the gems of our Main Streets.  And with the assistance of The National Main Street Center, and local programs like Summerville DREAM, you can help create opportunities that may return you to your childhood to relive those “good old days” in your downtown.

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I know many of you have similar stories and remembrances of days gone by.  There are also many independent businesses in our communities who opened yesterday, last week or last year.  We need to celebrate those also so that we demonstrate our continued support of their efforts and passion.  Please share your stories with all of us by filling out this short questionnaire and emailing it to Rachel Bowdon, Associate Manager of Communications at the National Main Street Center, at rbowdon@savingplaces.org.  The Center will be featuring your stories in Main Street Weekly throughout the summer.