When Susalee Lamb was growing up on Saluda Avenue in the 1950s and 1960s, Five Points was a self-contained village, with everything from a hardware store and auto parts dealer to ice cream shops and a movie theater.
In 1980, the then 29-year-old Lamb bought Gibson’s, an apothecary and lunch counter at 743 Saluda Ave., where Twig dress shop is today. She turned it into a full service gift shop selling greeting cards, engraved stationary, china, glassware and seasonal items.
She operated there for 25 years before selling the store and moving up the hill on Devine Street. The village had changed, she said.
“More restaurants were moving in and starting to put a lot of pressure on retailers,” said Lamb, who still lives near the village with her husband, Bill, in the University Hill neighborhood. “Their employees would park on the street taking up all the space. Food delivery trucks and beer trucks would block traffic flow. It got to the point after four o’clock in the afternoon, our customers had nowhere to park.”
That was 2005. Today, the commercial fabric of the eclectic village near the University of South Carolina is changing once again.
Several of the restaurants that chased Lamb away have closed, including The Parthenon, Monterrey Jack’s, Hannah Jane’s, Gracie’s, Frank’s hotdogs, and Sharky’s Pizza. In their place are bars that cater mainly to college students, including Thirsty Parrot, Moosehead, Cover 3, The Roost and Latitude 22.
The new businesses are strictly bars, with just enough food on hand to meet minimum requirements for serving liquor. They don’t open until 9 p.m., most have no closing time six nights a week, and for many their stock in trade is selling the cheapest, strong drinks they can serve to the growing number of USC students, some of whom are underage and using fake IDs.
Most of Five Points’ 18 late night bars are located along Harden Street, making the once-bustling retail corridor a ghost town during the day.
“I’m in no man’s land here,” said Bruce DeBose, owner of Sylvan and DuBose, a fifth generation jeweler whose store at 622 Harden St. is surrounded by bars. “When Copper Penny moves, we’ll be the only retailer left on this side of Harden Street.”
Copper Penny is a dress shop slated to move into the old Devine Foods location on Devine Street. No timeline has been announced.
While night time bars are increasing and getting the most attention, there are still many daytime retailers like Sylvan & DuBose. They include Blossom Shop, Bohemian, 2Gs Clothing, Edible Arrangement, Elite Framing, Loose Lucy’s and Hip-Wa-Zee.
The problem for many people is that there aren’t enough of these retail establishments.
“The challenge at a little shop like ours, truthfully, is remaining relevant in the changing face of shopping habits,” said Loose Lucy’s owner Don McCallister, who opened the hippie shop on Saluda Avenue in 1992. “Bricks-and-mortar versus online; things like that. But we know the future of Five Points depends on retail.”
Whether the trend toward bars over restaurants and retail will continue is a matter of heated debate and is now ending up in courtrooms. The liquor licenses of two college bars, The Roost and Rooftop Bar, are being challenged before an administrative law judge.
But much of the focus is on the building that once housed Harper’s, one of Five Points’ most notable restaurants. Harper’s closed last year just after its parent company opened 1801 Grille on Lincoln Street in the newest part of USC’s campus, just steps from Colonial Life Arena.
The Five Points Association and neighborhood groups, including Wales Garden, would like another sit-down restaurant there. And they and a group of neighborhood leaders recently ran off two brothers from Florence who wanted to open a Zaxby’s fast-food restaurant there. They all opposed Zaxby’s plans for a drive-thru window, and the brothers pulled up stakes when the window was challenged in court.
The building’s owner, John Scarborough, told The State he has had only three businesses express serious interest in the building – Zaxby’s, a bank and somebody wanting to open another college bar.
Scarborough dropped his rent on the building from $20,000 per month to $14,000. That’s $25 a square foot, which is in line with what retail space is renting for in Five Points, according to a report from commercial real estate brokers Colliers International for the fourth quarter of 2017.
Finding another Harper’s “is going to be hard to replicate,” said Kirkman Finlay, a state representative who owns Pawley’s Front Porch, a gourmet hamburger restaurant in Five Points. “If you drop your rent by one-third and you’re still not getting anybody, that’s an issue. I don’t know if Zaxby’s is a good or a bad idea. But it would be better than an empty building sitting there for three or four years.
“And how would people in Wales Garden react if a Hooters went in there?” he said.
‘Not much available’
Cementing for many the belief that Five Points is in decline, here are some other Five Points fixtures that have closed:
▪ Garibaldi’s, 2013 Greene St., Italian cuisine and seafood, opened 1986, closed 2015.
▪ El Burrito, 934 Harden St., Mexican, opened 2011, closed 2017.
▪ Rise Gourmet Goods and Bake Shop, 926 Harden St., opened 2014, closed 2017.
▪ Claussen’s Inn, 2003 Greene St., opened as bakery in 1928, remodeled into a hotel in the 1960s, closed 2017.
Steve Cook, the owner of Saluda’s, the white tablecloth restaurant overlooking the Five Points fountain, said that perception is a misconception.
“Our business has never been better,” he said.
(A visit by a reporter from The State last month on a Friday night showed every table filled.)
Cook noted Garibaldi’s Cafe closed because its lease was up and the Charleston-based Garibaldi’s Management Group wanted to reopen in a building it owned. It now operates Cola’s in the Vista in a building it purchased.
Harper’s Restaurant Group moved to 1801 Grille, Cook said, because of a lucrative deal with USC, although Harper’s said at the time it was because “dining trends and areas in Columbia have changed dramatically over the past few years.”
El Burrito and Rise closed because their buildings were purchased by an investor who intends to redevelop the entire block.
And Claussen’s Inn shut down after the 1,000-year flood of 2015 collapsed the roof.
“Other than Harper’s, there’s really not much available in Five Points,” Cook said. “The impression that we’re somehow losing businesses is simply not true.”
A ‘missing tooth’
The Garbaldi’s storefront was snapped up almost immediately by an out-of-state partnership that completely remodeled the room and opened Publico Kitchen & Tap.
The restaurant has become a popular gathering site for all ages. It is a smart, modern eatery that features craft beer, fusion tacos and other trendy cuisine.
“When we came to town, we could do the Vista or Five Points,” said managing partner Michael Duganier. “Everyone said go to the Vista, that Five Points was a college-y area. Dangerous. And we still chose to go in there and we have had absolutely no issues.
“This location has been a blessing to us.”
Duganier, a life-long restauranteur from New York, is now opening another Publico in Atlanta.
Almost every storefront in Five Points is filled, Cook noted. But the college bars are dark until 9 p.m or 10 p.m., adding to the perception that the village is struggling.
“We refer to that as like a missing tooth in your smile,” said Amy Beth Franks, executive director of the Five Points Association.
She and her staff of one other marketer do what they can to keep the district clean and attractive. They also plan events like the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration and Five Points After Five concert series, “but at the end of the day it is in the hands of the property owners because they're the ones that get to choose who will occupy the space.”
Richard Burts is one of the largest property owners in Five Points. He owns the building that houses Saluda’s and Starbucks as well as others.
“Five Points has always been nearly 100 percent filed,” he said.
Five Points had a spike in restaurants over the past 20 or so years. That caused some retailers like Lamb to move as the restaurants soaked up the parking.
Restaurants are a high volume business that requires at least two waves of customers each day — lunch and dinner — to stay afloat, Burts said. Without adequate parking, they can’t attract those customers and have to close, or morph the business into more of a bar.
With more restaurants and no new parking, some restaurants closed or morphed into bars, which require very little daytime parking.
And while it seems there is always parking available in Five Points, it’s there because restaurants became night time bars, freeing up spaces.
“Parking has an equilibrium,” he said. “And we don’t have enough” to attract more restaurants and retail over late night bars.
In 2007, two developers wanted to build a six-story retail and residential project called Five Points South at the site of what is now Walgreen’s. It would have included a city-owned parking garage.
The project kicked up strident opposition among residents of some neighborhoods such as Wales Garden because of its height. So the garage was never built.
Although a 35-space surface lot has opened at the site of the former Exxon Station in the center of Five Points last year, that isn’t enough to bring the restaurants back, Franks said.
“I can't recruit a really great restaurant to come down here if their customers are not going to have anywhere to park,” she said. “I really think if we got a parking garage we could start attracting better businesses.”
For 66-year-old Lamb, the time has passed.
“At this point we just avoid Five Points,” she said. “All those college bars just make it look grubby. We don’t take people there when they come to visit. There are other nicer places.”