Bertha in her 20s

The Cotton Gin
By Barry Breibart

Before the Internet, and before shopping malls, Charleston had a main shopping street filled with locally owned retail stores. The individual stores sold clothing, furniture, bicycles, hardware, jewelry, and even pianos. The old street car tracks were removed in the 50’s to make room for cars to drive and park.

The suburbs had their own neighborhood retail stores.

Charleston’s suburbs had shopping districts along the busy streets in West Ashley, North Charleston, and Mt. Pleasant. In those days there was not much shopping on the islands.

West Ashley’s shopping area was along Savannah Highway (US17) in the stretch bracketed by Byrnes Downs on the east side and Avondale and Magnolia Heights on the west side of the highway. All the businesses were family owned, even the chain grocery and department stores. There were gas stations, dry cleaners, barber shops, drug stores, a soft-serve ice cream walk up, a hardware store, and even a skating rink. One of the stores had doctors’ office upstairs. Today this is a hip shopping and restaurant district surrounded by small houses that now sell for high prices because of their proximity to downtown.

The suburban Breibart’s and Sonenshine’s lived just off Savannah highway along with many other Jewish families of that generation. Even today, West Ashley is referred to as Charleston’s first suburb.

In the early 1950’s Bertha Breibart and her neighbor and good friend, Lillian Shulman, decided to go into business together. They still had young children, so the business needed to be close to their Byrnes Downs homes. Neither of the ladies had any experience starting or running a business, so they looked for a small business they could buy.

At the south end of Byrnes Downs, just off the main highway on Daniel Street, there was a tiny little store owned by a lady named Virginia. Virginia called her store the Cotton Gin, and she sold inexpensive clothing for ladies. Virginia wanted to sell her business, and Bertha and Lillian jumped at the opportunity.

The Cotton Gin was so small that it did not even have a bathroom. The store was less than 15-feet wide and probably about 30-feet long. The concrete block building was attached to the rear of a laundry and dry-cleaning store that fronted on Savannah Highway. To the right of the Cotton Gin’s Daniel Street door there was a back door into the laundry. The back door led to the hot and steamy laundry’s bathroom, water fountain, and Coke machine. As family of the Cotton Gin’s owners, we could use the laundry’s bathroom when visiting our moms. One of our biggest thrills was using a nickel to buy a Coke from the laundry’s machine. The water fountain had ice-cold water, just the thing after the bike ride from our house to the store.

The Cotton Gin had a few racks and shelves. Other than the store front’s glass window and door, there was one small window high up on a wall. The floor was painted concrete. The cash register was on a small table. A one-person booth was curtained off for trying clothes. The store sold women’s blue jeans and pants, cotton blouses, and cotton dresses. There was no air conditioning. The store tended to smell like whatever the ladies were having for lunch. Bertha and Lillian were the store’s only employees. The small store was jammed with merchandise. There was barely room for the employees to walk around, much less for the customers.

Most of the store’s merchandise came from a Fruit of the Loom factory somewhere in North Charleston. Bertha or Lillian would make periodic trips to the factory and come back with a carload of clothing. Along with the jeans, they offered “pedal-pushers” that were the 50’s version of women’s trousers that stop midway between knee and ankle. One of the largest racks was reserved for a fashion item they referred to as “smocks,” plain cotton dresses in subdued colors and prints.

If you look up the definition of a women’s smock, the term can refer to an undergarment or protective garment to wear while working. The Cotton Gin sold cotton dresses they called smocks, and the dresses were even advertised as smocks. There was even discussion of changing the Cotton Gin’s name to the Smock Shop, so the word must have had a special meaning in the low country.

Bertha would bring all the cash, receipts, and other paperwork home, and her husband would do the bookkeeping. George Breibart kept amazing written records for them. In the absence of computers, calculators, and spreadsheets, the unpaid bookkeeper was a significant member of the store’s team.

Bertha and Lillian ran the store for a few years. They had to close when the building was sold. The new owner was going to tear it down and build a medical office. The new two-story building was a dental office for Leon Feldman downstairs. The upstairs was an office for Abram Berry, everybody’s pediatrician. Today even the medical building is gone, and the one-story building houses retail and offices facing on Daniel Street and Savannah Highway.

The Cotton Gin was a tiny operation. Credit cards did not exist, so all transactions were paid with cash or by check. The individual items sold for only a few dollars each and, even jam packed, the building could only hold a small inventory. When the Cotton Gin closed, there was a going out of business sales that lasted a few days. People had to stand in line to get into the store, and it only took a few customers to fill the limited space.

Bertha and Lillian split the money from the business. Occasionally Bertha would make a purchase that she and George had not agreed on. When George questioned her, the response for many years was, “It’s Cotton Gin money.”