Among recent new retail offerings in downtown Wilmington, an entrepreneurial couple that moved to Wilmington last year has opened a store at The Cotton Exchange, selling sandals and other items made by artisans in Africa.
Caroline Fisher and Tony Peele, who met each other while earning degrees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, opened Swahili Coast at The Cotton Exchange in April. The store is an outgrowth of their wholesale shoe company founded in 2014, Seeded Hand Sown, which sells handmade beaded leather sandals to 35 boutiques across the U.S.
"We had been living back and forth between Asheville and Tanzania, and our sandal company was growing and doing well," Peele said. "We decided to move to the beach and move our company down here."
During Peele's senior year at Chapel Hill, where he studied philosophy and economics, he participated in a semester abroad program that took him to the east African country of Tanzania.
"I just really liked it. I was really into the culture and made a bunch of friends over there, started learning Swahili, and then I applied for a fellowship after school and got it," Peele said.
For the Fulbright fellowship, Peele's agricultural economics project evaluated the efficiency of food storage systems.
"We spent a year running a research study and we were living in a Tanzanian neighborhood, just really immersed in the culture, got really good at Swahili, made a lot of contacts and figured out how things worked over there," Peele said. "That was our big experience that really put our roots down over there."
Fisher, who studied English literature at Chapel Hill, designs the sandals that are then made by a worker co-op in Tanzania. Fisher and Peele founded the Swahili Coast Co-op, but do not have an ownership interest in it, the idea being that the co-op will be solely owned by its workers.
At the Wilmington store, the beaded sandals range in price from $79 to $114. In addition to the shoes, Swahili Coast's inventory includes baskets made in Tanzania that benefit children orphaned by AIDS, beaded jewelry, handbags, belts and a variety of textiles.
"The other reason why we opened the store is because we've met a lot of other artisan groups while we've been working in Tanzania over the years, and we had a lot of ideas for other products. We wanted to try and see what other people we could bring into the fold and promote their goods," Fisher said.
Swahili Coast is holding a grand opening event with light refreshments, beverages, giveaways and specials from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, with 20 percent of all sales donated to Swahili Coast Co-op.
With the Swahili Coast store, The Cotton Exchange retail and office complex, which consists of eight historic buildings, is 100 percent occupied, said Nancy Bullock, general manager of The Cotton Exchange, 321 N. Front St.
Elsewhere in downtown Wilmington, Lisa and Justin Hauenstein opened Threve Mercantile (pictured at right
), a home decor store, at 108 Market St. last month.
"We've been working toward this for about 12 years and downtown has always been our ideal location," said Lisa Hauenstein.
The couple had been eyeing that specific location on Market Street "for a really long time," she said, so when it became available at the same time as they were looking to open a storefront, "I think there was a little bit of destiny mixed in there, but downtown, you can't beat the location for a business, for the foot traffic and the exposure and everything else."
The Hauensteins, who also have an interior design business, had found success selling home decor at Zartiques in Castle Hayne before making the leap to their own downtown store, occupying the space that was previously home to clothing boutique A La Mode. The name "Threve" came from the word their son used for "the three of us" when referring to the Hauenstein family.
Other retailers that have opened recently in downtown Wilmington include Madame Meerkat's Cabinet of Curiosities in Old Wilmington City Market and clothing store Bellies & Bambinos in Chandler's Wharf.
Madame Meerkat's was opened by Horace Long, founder of The Bearded Heart, a brand of T-shirts, tank tops, cotton napkin sets and other items. The store is operated by Long's mother, Sandra Long, and among its inventory are The Bearded Heart and other locally made products, some imports and a variety of "curiosities," Horace Long said.