Capitol Street in downtown Charleston is home to unique shops, delicious cafes, swanky bars and upscale banks. It’s also the location of three businesses owned by female entrepreneurs.
In 1995, Taylor Books opened near the middle of the street. Two years later, an ice cream shop, Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream, opened directly across the street, and in 2006 Charleston Bread arrived on the scene a few blocks down. The three shops thrive where many others have closed, and that is largely due to the vision and passion of their owners.
Libby Chatfield of Charleston Bread, Ann Seville of Taylor Books and Ellen Beal of Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream are the lucky few for new businesses. The U.S. Department of Commerce and Bureau of Labor Statistics states that only half of businesses are open after five years. That number drops to one-third after 10 years and one-quarter for those in business 15 years or more.
“Getting a business started is nonstop; it’s your whole life,” Chatfield said. “The community has been very, very supportive. And it’s just been a lot of fun.”
Chatfield opened Charleston Bread in 2006 to a line of a dozen people already waiting outside the door. In May, she celebrated the five-year anniversary of the store’s opening. Chatfield said she never thought a bakery was where she would end up.
She grew up in Charleston and attended Marshall University for zoology. There, Rachel Frum, the wife of one of her favorite professors, taught her how to knead dough and bake bread.
“My mother did not bake – she was a good cook, but not a baker. At Marshall, my professor and his wife would have students come and clean up their house and help out,” Chatfield said. “She was an accomplished baker, and I learned a great deal from her. She started me making bread; my hands were first in the dough in Huntington.”
After college, Chatfield got married, moved across the country for law school and came back to the area to work for the state as an attorney and technical advisor, where she wrote water quality reports with the environmental quality board for the state. After 11 years, she became interested in switching gears.
“One of the things my husband and I loved were the small artisan bakeries that were established all over Oregon and Illinois. I was a home baker – I always liked to bake – and when the opportunity arose, when I felt like I was at a turning point, I decided to stop and do this,” she said. “I knew Charleston well enough to know it would support this kind of endeavor, and indeed it has – a gut feeling.”
Now, the retail/storefront bakery sells breads, cookies and pastries, Tuesday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Charleston Bread provides some local restaurants with bread. South Hills Market and Cafe, Swiftwater Cafe, Berry Hills Country Club and Bruno’s all carry Charleston Bread products.
Charleston Bread offers a wide variety of breads, including baguettes, croissants, cinnamon swirl raisin bread, sourdough, olive loaf, cookies and even dog treats.
“We are different, but the local restaurants and local restaurant owners have been supportive and have begun to use our bread, and they communicate to their customers where it came from. That helps,” she said.
Though Chatfield has no formal training as a baker, she believes her previous work experience has been an asset.
“I think it’s an advantage, coming into it late, without a culinary background. I often say that I really had no business doing what I have done. It’s very, very helpful having that background to run any food-related business,” she said. “I have no fear, no set agenda, nothing that is telling me I can’t do it that way. I can look at it differently – my law degree has helped me to do that.”
While Chatfield initially opened the bakery because she loved to bake, she has taken on a more administrative role. She employs three bakers, who take on most of the baking-related tasks.
“I’m lucky to have three women working for me who are culinary school graduates. I could not do this without them. They have taught me a lot. Some things I can’t do and never will be able to do,” she said. “One of the bakers is decorating a cake – I can’t, but I’m glad she can do it.”
Chatfield followed her passion, which led her to the bakery. But the bakery brought her more than she anticipated.
“The relationships I’ve developed – I did not expect. This kind of endeavor draws people. When I was doing research about doing a bakery, I was focused on setting up the bakery, getting the equipment, figuring out formulas – all the nuts and bolts. I had not spent any time thinking about what happened when you open the door,” she said.
“Then all of a sudden, the door opens and there was a line out the door outside. That was a relationship I didn’t give three minutes about – the people of Charleston coming to get a new product and the people excited to have a new small business. It has been rewarding and fulfilling.”
Seville, of Taylor Books, also realized the strength of the community that is invested in community business.
“Our community understands the power of individual shopping. We have tremendous support from community that fully understand if they didn’t support us, we wouldn’t be here,” she said. “The people make an effort. They feel guilty if they pick up a book from Sam’s – even if it’s a lot less. They can offer it cheaper than what we can get it from the distributer. We can’t compete. But it’s a little town, and people appreciate what we’re doing, and it contributes toward a more livable community. They recognize that and support us. We appreciate it.”
An avid reader, Seville and her late husband opened Taylor Books (Taylor is Seville’s maiden name) after his retirement in 1995. The bookstore features all types of books, but specializes in fiction, biography and children’s books.
“We lived up on the hill. Having no hobbies and only a dog to walk back then, I looked around all the cities. I traveled a lot. I have five grown children, and I just kept seeing these book stores that were sort of meeting places and people chatting over coffee,” she said. “Being a Londoner, we didn’t like living in the hill in the trees – I wanted to be in the city. And there was nothing quite like this in Charleston.”
Seville and her husband sold their house and purchased the building on Capitol Street.
In order to abide by city codes, the building itself had to remain true to its original integrity. Seville rebuilt the front the way it originally looked. She also made the front, where the café is located, all windows. She ripped out the insides and found the original tin ceiling and arches that were hidden under plaster. The original white oak floors were covered in scraps of carpet.
“I just wanted to preserve the look of the old building. I didn’t want it to look too institutional inside. People say ‘you were the first, you were so brave.’ I just nod and say yes, yes. I did what I wanted to do, and it turned out,” Seville said.
After her husband passed a few years ago, the shop became her sole responsibility. She now lives upstairs, where she makes scones and muffins seven days a week for the bookstore. For Seville, the bookstore is much more than a place to pick up a novel and grab a pastry.
People can have meetings and get-together at her shop, Seville said. “But it’s a destination. Come stay a couple hours. The tables are haphazard – a mix of things. People can be comfortable here.”
The bookstore also features sandwiches and salads in the café area, as well as an art gallery that showcases regional artists from around the surrounding states. In addition, Taylor Books hosts live music on Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as art classes in the clay studio on the lower level.
“Being right downtown is absolutely wonderful. I can walk everywhere, even though I’m an old lady,” Seville said. “My car, which is a ’98, has 63,000 miles because it’s in a garage and doesn’t get used much. If I want something to read, I just pop downstairs and there we are.”
Seville couldn’t imagine opening her shop anywhere else. When she opened Taylor Books, there weren’t many businesses on the street, aside from lawyer’s offices, she said. Capitol Street has since flourished with dozens of local shops.
“I am in the middle of town – halfway between the river and hills. Everybody walks down the street. Capitol Street is our little town’s equivalent of Main Street. It’s the busiest downtown place,” she said. “The risk I took was worthwhile. We have filled a niche. If you fill a niche that people enjoy and haven’t had before, people will support you.”
Opening 14 years ago, right across the street from Taylor Books, Beal had already known she wanted to open her shop in Downtown Charleston.
“I’m very happy to be in the downtown center. The shop I found on Capitol Street seemed really good for what I wanted to do and the character I wanted my shop to have,” Beal said.
Part of that character involves the laidback, relaxed feel of Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream.
Beal makes all of her ice cream in house. She comes up with all of the flavors and creates them herself. The process of homemade ice cream involves moving cases of cream, freezing it, and mixing it, Beal said.
Her unique flavors, like Guinness, and seasonal choices, like Pumpkin and Peppermint, keep Charlestonians intrigued. Many locals also frequent the shop for the variety of healthy wraps, soups and salads.
Before she opened her business, Beal was a flautist in the West Virginia Symphony. Since she was in the fifth grade she loved music, but her love of ice cream drove her to open an ice cream shop on Capitol Street. Beal learned her trade in Massachusetts, where she mastered making ice cream from a shop in Western Lennox. But, she later brought her skill and ambition to Charleston.
“You look at life and you make choices, and you know you want to go with it. It’s not concrete … it was just the right time. It seemed like a really fun thing to do,” Beal said.
Beal provides ice cream to some Charleston businesses wholesale, and during the summer months, she sells ice cream out of a stand at the Charleston Market.
Over the last 14 years, Beal has seen more and more customers come through her door. She has pictures of faithful customers and says she has seen some kids grow up and go off to college. Being across the street from Taylor Books has given her the opportunity to have more customers also. “That helped me by them being there,” Beal said.
Recently, the downtown area has gotten more popular among locals. “Traditionally I think they didn’t realize that there was anything to come downtown for, but there are more businesses now.”
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