One month ago, America was shaken and glued to television screens as it witnessed a frightening, unbearable massacre. The shootings that took place in Charleston on June 17 were disheartening, discouraging, and left community leaders and residents throughout the country wondering how a schism this wide could have grown on our grounds. Hate and prejudice now seemed rampant and unstoppable. Charleston, like many other communities, was sagging under the burden of questioning. “Does our city have a problem with racial injustice? Do we treat people equally?” These were just some of the questions I found myself asking.
To uncover the answer to these questions, we naturally looked to the most public, open parts of a city: its retail corridors. Unlike any other area of a neighborhood, retail serves as the common denominator; everyone needs toothpaste, even in the midst of a national crisis. And, during intense periods where a city feels as if it is on lockdown, retail stores act like a town square – the place where people purchase necessary items, and also hear and relay the latest news. It becomes a neutral zone where conversation becomes safe and, indeed, encouraged. So we turned to Charleston’s retail stores to get a glimpse of how interactions between people of all backgrounds were transpiring.
Ashley Chaney, Manager of clothing boutique Scout and Molly’s, confirmed that this was the case. Located on King Street a mere two blocks from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where the shootings took place in Charleston, Scout and Molly’s became a refuge for tourists and locals alike. “The morning of the shooting we were technically open, but we kept our doors closed as we were being cautious until the suspect was caught,” Chaney said. In the afternoon, however, after the suspect was apprehended, things began to pick up. As curious tourists and residents wandered by the church, they began also meandering to King Street, Charleston’s iconic retail street.
“Even though the day started out very quietly, by the afternoon the air was buzzing. Everyone was talking – to each other, to the owner. Tourists were asking locals questions and the locals were quick to answer, while also defending their city,” Chaney explained.
There was a bond forming in the community, between Charleston residents as well as visitors. Chaney said, “I noticed people looking sad when they walking in the door, but they still smiled at you. It was almost like they offering encouragement, or trying to provide some sort of comfort with a smile.” Scout and Molly – and the plethora of other retail stores on the street – served as safe, neutral spaces where people, including local residents and visitors, could come in, take comfort in being around others, share a small smile, and even express their grief or frustration. Local residents who were ashamed of their city on that day were able to “defend” Charleston, expressing their disappointment that such a horrific act was committed on their soil. The retail stores became small havens throughout the city, offering refuge and community for those who sought it.
Chaney was thankful to have a place to go that day; to have a schedule to provide some sense of rhythm to her day. But more than that, the store became a place to share feelings and discuss the occurrences of the day. “We found comfort in just being with each other in our store that day, because we were able to share what it really means to be from Charleston: welcoming community.”