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Oak Lea: After 25 years, shops still set the standard

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Tourist season was almost over when the Shops at Oak Lea opened the doors 25 years ago. And just as owners Joey and Angie Bunn and Eleanor and Bill Pitts were settling into business on Highway 17 Hurricane Hugo struck.

The substantial buildings suffered almost no damage in the storm, and the shops have become a destination for generations of shoppers. The owners will celebrate their silver anniversary Aug. 1-2 with refreshments and entertainment. The Highliners, a local band, will play Aug. 2 from 2 to 5 p.m. The Joggling Board, Pawleys Pedalar, The Men’s Store, Eleanor Pitts Gifts, Jewelry and China and the Cheryl Newby Gallery will all have sales, and shoppers can take advantage of the upcoming tax-free weekend on qualifying merchandise.

The four buildings themselves, one of the first mixed-use “planned unit developments” in the county, according to Eleanor Pitts, have stood the test of time. “They would meet today’s design standards,” said county planner Boyd Johnson. “They were able to address the big issues of the time: stormwater, saving the trees, signs and architecture that fit into the area. We wish a lot more people would look at that as a very good example.”

Joey and Angie Bunn decided they wanted to own their own property after leasing space from All Saints Church on Highway 17 at first and the Hammock Shops for about a dozen more years. Their son Rob remembered his parents selling his grandfather’s pepper jelly and poinsettias in the Pedalar at the Hammock Shops around Christmas. They even sold local art on consignment to make ends meet. “We sold anything we could get our hands on,” Joey Bunn said. “That’s how the Pedalar came about.”

Joey Bunn said he originally planned to build just one building, but the opportunity to do more presented itself. Bill and Eleanor Pitts decided they wanted to build on the property in order to move her gift shop from Kingstree. “They had two daughters, and we had two sons,” Joey Bunn said. Some of those children help with the businesses today. Rob and Amy Bunn run the Joggling Board, a Lilly Pulitzer Signature Shop, Pawleys Pedalar and the Men’s Store. LeAnne Daniels handles advertising among other duties at Eleanor Pitts.

The original design plans for the Shops at Oak Lea, drawn by architects from Burroughs and Chapin of Myrtle Beach, didn’t exactly suit the Bunns. The Lowcountry look was what they wanted, but the stores had three doors and columns blocked the view of the show windows. Bill Pitts had a friend in Kingstree to redraw them.

“One thing we really loved and worried about was the trees,” Joey Bunn said. “I didn’t want to lose them, even though we had to take down a big cedar.” He hired an arborist two years ago who removed moss and the resurrection ferns from the live oaks on the property. “They are healthier now than ever,” he said.

One of the features that visitors remember about the shopping complex is the fish pond with its colorful koi and baby ducks in the spring. It was the first stormwater runoff system put in place in a commercial development on the Waccamaw Neck.

Eleanor Pitts said they were held to a high building standard 25 years ago. “Now,” she said, “they use us as an example as how we want shops to look.” She said Joey Bunn persuaded them to join the project and did most of the legwork. “We said it sounds good. You just go on faith.” The Pittses were living in Kingstree and had a second home at Litchfield. They commuted for five years until Bill sold his pharmacy and they built a house in DeBordieu.

Cheryl Newby moved her art gallery from Myrtle Beach to the Shops at Oak Lea 14 years ago when she and husband Fred built a house in Wachesaw Plantation. “The architecture is beautiful, I think, very attractive,” Newby said. “It exudes the ambience of the Lowcountry, and my neighbors are so nice. We complement each other with high quality products: things for the home and office, clothes, jewelry and gifts. People can come here and have a nice variety.”

Rob Bunn said he’s seeing the third generation of shoppers who began with his parents before the day of credit cards. Joey Bunn would accept checks from tourists in order to build their loyalty. “The scariest check in those days,” he said, “was a local check.”

The Bunns tried to coordinate their move from the Hammock Shops with the arrival of Easter in 1989. Their new merchandise arrived, but “little things” delayed the store openings until late July. Ads in the Coastal Observer said “opening soon” for weeks prior to the big event. They rented space at the Litchfield Exchange to keep their stores going over the summer. “If we were not open by Easter, we knew it was going to be a long year,” Angie Bunn said.

Rob Bunn said the shops have survived by offering service, quality goods and the right price. “There’s not one thing in any of these stores that anybody has to have,” his father said. “When you open the door it’s like they are coming in your living room. That’s how you treat them.”

Other business news: Independent Seafood: From dock to table

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