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South Carolina

Charleston's Old Market: Sweetgrass and More

Treasure Trawling At

Charleston's Old Market 

Low Country sweetgrass baskets are available for purchase at Charleston's Old Market.*

By Natasha Lawrence

Downtown Charleston is home to an eclectic shopping bazaar that is as vibrant a venue today as it was in the 1800s.

Charleston Market (843-853-8000), also called the Old City Market, is made up of multiple buildings, mostly open air. It is not a flea market, however.

Not surprisingly, it sprawls along the aptly named Market Street, between Meeting and East Bay streets. A charming touch: romantic carriages drawn by horses and mules await visitors outside the market.

At the Beginning

Interested in history? The 200-year-old market was created when a wealthy Charleston family donated land near the waterfront for a permanent public market. It soon became a bustling commerce center attracting local farmers, sharecroppers, fishermen and merchants. Since its inception, Charleston Market has survived natural disasters, economic downturns and even the turmoil of war.

Most visitors will enter the market through the portico of the Greek-style Market Hall, built in 1841. If you’re a Civil War history buff, head up the stairs lined with ornate iron railings to the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum (843-723-1541, www.scudc.org), 88 Market St.

Shoppers who remain at ground level usually enter the market building just off Meeting Street and follow a winding corridor to peruse the permanent shops.

Heading outside through the opposite end of the establishment, visitors can then stroll through several alfresco buildings. Vendors sell souvenirs, T-shirts, and local and imported arts and crafts.

Traditional Sweetgrass Baskets

The market is a great place to watch the creation of sweetgrass baskets. This intricate art form has been passed down from generation to generation by West African slaves who arrived at Charleston in the 1700s and 1800s.

Sweetgrass is harvested seasonally. It is combined with bulrushes, palmetto leaves and long pine needles to create baskets of extraordinary shapes and designs. Usually the artists sit and work just outside the entry points. A few have stands within the market itself.

Many sweetgrass weavers use a filed-down iced tea spoon as a tool to pry open a strand of pine needles. Then they slip a strip of sweetgrass through, and wind and tighten the row. The art requires skill and a strong hand.

Spacing of stitches and tightness of weaving are important for workmanship quality. Each artist has their own style. Most sign and date their work. It may take several days to create one basket with a lid.

Elaborate baskets could fetch hundreds of dollars. Small baskets are more affordable. Earrings, barrettes, pins, bracelets and small Christmas ornaments made of the material sell for $15.

Hats, Food, Maps and Baubles

Food lovers will find much to their liking in the market, including Carolina Low Country spices, sauces, sweet goods and gourmet treats. Visitors also can shop for art, jewelry, leather goods, holiday ornaments, clothing, perfume and books, along with some antiques.

The Charleston Hat Man is also known as the Country Gentleman (843-723-9819), 188 Meeting St., Bldg. A. This firm sells all kinds of hats, from Stetsons to bowlers to Charleston baseball caps.

Noah’s Nook, also known as Charleston Christmas Corner (843-722-8002), 188 Meeting St., Bldg. A, is the best place to buy holiday ornaments and decorations.

Make It Personal (843-722-3411, www.makeitpersonal-online.com), 188 Meeting St, Bldg. A, specializes in custom monogramming.

Seeking historical maps, flags or artifact replicas? Then check out Old Historical Views (843-723-7708), 188 Meeting St., Bldg. A. If you want to purchase local art, you might visit Lucky Charleston Horseshoe (e-mail: avarocco@usa.com), 188 Meeting St. Bldg. D, for decorative, recycled Charleston horseshoes.

In addition, Deborah Reeves Arts (843-327-5947, www.deborahreevesarts.com), 188 Meeting St. Bldg. D, sells hand-painted ornaments depicting Charleston’s historic buildings.

Reader Intel

The market is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. It’s just a few blocks from Charleston’s cruise pier. Those arriving by car can use either the municipal parking garages or metered street parking.

One tip? Wear comfortable walking shoes. It’s easy to spend a few hours exploring the market and surrounding historic district.

Hunger Pangs?

Check out our Food & Wine themed Travel Section (click on Food & Wine in this page's lower right column) for tips on downtown historic district restaurants.

For More Information

Contact the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 843-853-8000 or www.charlestoncvb.com.

Freelance writer Natasha Lawrence resides in the Charleston area. She contributes to Internet travel Web sites and such publications as Savannah Magazine, Northern Virginia Magazine, Alaska Business Monthly and Florida Woman. She has also written several guidebooks and guest lectures for cruise ship enrichment programs on journal writing and calligraphy

*Photo is owned, copyrighted and used with permission of the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy this photo.

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