Estelle Bluestein kept her family’s dry goods store open for months, hoping her son Bryan would return from a diagnosis of brain cancer to manage the curious warehouse full of hotel linens, overalls and extra-large clothing.
But the decision has been reached – not without some family tensions, granted – to close the sign-covered storefront at Gervais and Park streets in the Vista.
First, though, Bluestein Wholesale Dry Goods will re-open for two Saturdays in June to dispose of an extensive inventory of bulk socks and Chambrey shirts, thick denim work clothes and thin cotton towels. The sales will be June 7 and 21, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“We’d like to see some of our old customers, if they’d like to come in,” said Estelle Bluestein, 87, joined by her son on a recent morning to discuss the situation.
“That’s good advertising, Ma,” Bryan Bluestein said from his wheelchair.
A smile flashed at her son’s compliment. “I didn’t run that business for a year on chopped liver.”
The mother and son, who have worked together for decades, seem to have come to terms with uncertainty.
They aren’t sure exactly what will happen to Bluestein’s after the two Saturday sales. Their real estate agent is negotiating with a company interested in renting the utilitarian, yellow-brick building, unusual for its corner entrance.
Perhaps the two will maintain a special-order business after closing the storefront, continuing to cater to hotels, hospitals and other institutions.
They talk freely about Bryan’s illness: How he thought he’d had a stroke because he couldn’t even hold a piece of paper with his left hand.
He was quickly diagnosed with a brain tumor in November 2012 and spent the next 51/2 months at Duke University in Durham, N.C., treated by the same surgeon as U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Her son is holding his own, that’s the main thing, Estelle Bluestein said.
“We’re hoping that pretty soon, somebody will develop something that will take care of tumors,” she said. “That’s going to happen. I just read in People magazine that they cured a young lady by giving her a polio vaccine.”
‘A loving relationship’
Bryan Bluestein hates to see another of Columbia’s small, Jewish businesses close. He worries in the end, there will be nothing but Walmart.
The store was founded in 1957, the year Estelle and Leon Bluestein married. Leon’s father had a similar store on Charleston’s King Street, where it remains today.
Bryan Bluestein took over the Gervais Street store in 1983, after graduating from the University of South Carolina with a law degree. His father passed away in 2000.
Bluestein’s thrived, in part, by catering to the restaurant community.
Earlier this week, the store opened its doors specifically for restaurant managers and chefs to restock their table linens and uniforms. Others found their way in, too – tourists, regulars, family friends.
Joe Turkaly, a chef at Gervais & Vine, came in for chef’s pants and coats. “Everybody in town always came here,” he said. “Since they buy in bulk, they’re able to take care of the restaurant community in Columbia, and they always have.”
But restaurateurs have been unable to restock since the first of the year, when Estelle Bluestein removed the familiar sign, “OPEN, COME IN.” She was worn out, running the store alone. She spent the winter and spring gathering her strength.
Barbra Dreesen said her mother and brother are two of a kind.
“One says one thing and the other one corrects the other, and the one says, ‘Hush, you don’t know.’
“It’s a loving relationship where both of them think they’re the boss and the other one is always wrong. But somehow it worked.”
Dreesen said her brother built on her father’s success. “Bryan did a great job expanding that business,” said Dreesen, the younger of the two and a school teacher. “He was a go-getter.”
The family said Leon Bluestein stacked empty boxes in the store to make it look like it was packed with inventory. His son, on the other hand, made sure those boxes were full, so customers could always get what they wanted.
Numbers have always been Bryan Bluestein’s forte, too. He could suggest the right pants size, within an inch, just by looking at a customer, he said. He could figure tax sums in his head.
But the brain tumor has undermined some of his exacting faculties, his mother said. While Bryan protested that point, the pair quickly agreed the business couldn’t afford mistakes with numbers.
Dressen said its closing is tragic in part because it was still doing well.
“It’s sad to know my brother is in the position that he’s in. And it’s sad for my mother,” Dreesen said. “What’s my mom going to do? It really was five days a week, 9 to 5 – there was my mom down at the store.”
Customers relied on the both of them.
During Monday’s sale for restaurant managers, Dreesen was helping a regular customer who kept insisting: ‘Where’s the old lady? The old lady knows what I want.’”
‘People really are good’
Bryan Bluestein and his wife, Marti, live in the gated Gregg Park community with their three children, ages 8 to 15.
Estelle Bluestein lives just behind them. A wrought-iron gate connects their yards.
One morning this week, a nurse assistant answered the door holding Mocha, the dog. The kids were out of school and enjoying an early summer morning – the oldest daughter Kinsey at the beach, the middle daughter Sydney at diving practice, son Reece out with a friend.
Marti Bluestein, a lawyer, said the family has been overwhelmed by kindness over the past year and a half.
When she accompanied Bryan to Durham, she expected to be gone 10 days. She stayed nearly six months.
Her mother, Anne Miles, came down from Florence and stepped in as caregiver. Friends helped with meals and after-school logistics. And they continue to be supportive – long-time friends, people from church, strangers struck by a similar cancer.
“People really are good,” Marti Bluestein said. “That’s the only way we’ve survived.”