Joanna Sherman thought she’d made a terrible mistake.
It was the early 2000s and Sherman had just moved her retail store Pink Bee out of its former location on Augusta Road to a new spot in the West End of downtown Greenville.
Back then, Fluor Field did not exist. Liberty Bridge was just a drawing on a set of blueprints.
Sherman’s building wasn’t much to look at either. Just a few weeks earlier, it had been occupied by squatters. On the day she arrived to begin the renovation process, it was sleeting and snowing, the sky a dismal grey and she had to step carefully over the torn-up sidewalk.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I done?’” Sherman recalled. “But somehow, all these years later, it all worked out, didn’t it?”
Whenever she strolls through the West End today, Sherman marvels at what she calls the “pulse of constant activity.”
“I remember when we first opened, people kept asking, ‘What are you thinking putting a high-end retail store down here? Why not further down on Main Street or Augusta Road?’” – Jeni Cain, owner Monkee’s of the West End
“I’m not really sure how to explain how I feel when I’m there now,” said Sherman, who sold Pink Bee in 2020 but still lives in downtown. “I’m proud and happy, but most importantly, it’s just so rewarding to see the vitality of what’s going on there.”
Sherman and others, including Greenville Mayor Knox White, credit that vitality to a cohort of business owners, led predominantly by women, who managed to create a unique district based upon organic relationships with their customers and one another.
“It wasn’t like the city ever had some master plan,” White said. “West End seemed to have always taken care of itself, some good personalities and people who really created a foothold downtown.”
“Before there was baseball, they were there,” he added.
West End is now home to a diverse array of business owners, addressing an equally-diverse customer base. Want some ice cream, cake or pie? Visit Old Europe pastry shop. Looking for a dentist appointment in a spa setting? There’s Bijou Dental Sap. Itching to kill zombies in 360-degree virtual reality? Check out Wantec VR arcade. Or just hankering for some fried chicken, beer, pasta and Mexican food all in the same location that also happens to be dog-friendly? Look no further than Gather GVL.
Not to mention, idyllic summer nights at Fluor Field.
But in the early days of the West End’s transformation two decades ago, retailers like Sherman — and their mostly-female customer base — paved the way for today’s business scene.
Jeni Cain first started stocking clothing at Monkee’s of the West End in 2006. She became manager in 2008 and full owner in 2015.
“I remember when we first opened, people kept asking, ‘What are you thinking putting a high-end retail store down here? Why not further down on Main Street or Augusta Road?’” Cain said.
But that relative isolation bred a unique culture, Cain said.
“It became a unique place because of women who created a culture around us, a culture of wanting to help people out and breed positivity,” she said. “It’s kind of like that scene in ‘Miracle on 31st Street’ where they say, ‘If we don’t have what you’re looking for, we’ll find it for you.’ I saw that literally happen countless times among the different store owners who sent customers my way and vice versa.”
The customers kept coming and gradually the West End earned a reputation as a retail shopping destination, a walkable string of stores that operated under a mindset that a rising tide lifts all ships.
Monkee’s has just expanded its store with a renovation and is busier than ever, Cain said.
Greenville Real Estate Development Manager Mary Douglas Hirsch said it was hard not to notice that trend of West End business owners banding together. Beyond formal groups like the West End Business Association, the glue that held the district together was mostly old fashioned one-on-one relationships.
“Each part of downtown has its own unique character,” Hirsch said. “I think in the case of the West End, if you’re talking arts or business, they realized early on that they could have more impact if they pulled some of their resources together.”
When it comes to the arts, South Carolina Children’s Theatre Executive Director Debbie Bell said that sense of community has been a buoy to the theatre’s growth as well. Originally occupying the former transit authority building on Augusta Street in the early 2000s, the theatre was a lonely bulwark of artistry amid an otherwise desolate surrounding. This autumn, the theatre will open its brand-new building to the public after a year of COVID-related delays, just across the street from the crowds at Fluor Field and Gather GVL.
Bell said even the theatre building itself would not have existed without the support of yet another woman in the West End, Josephine Cureton, who donated her old property and home to be used as the site of the theatre.
“Through her kindness, that started everything,” Bell said. “I think we’re all tremendously supportive of each other. It’s a wonderful little nook here that I’m excited to see grow in the future.”
Gradually, the future of that growth will pass on to a new generation of business owners, like Leigh Ann Miller, who took ownership of the Pink Bee from Sherman last year.
“They’re definitely big shoes to step into,” Miller said, noting that she felt as if she were taking over “a double legacy” — that of the shop itself and the women who made the West End what it is today.
“In a way it was lucky that Greenville had that group of women who independently decided to make West End home, but I think it says a lot about their gumption and dedication to try something in an unproven area,” Miller said. “I’m just happy to be a part of where it goes next.”