Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series highlighting cities and towns in the Wilmington area and the locations within them that are iconic and represent the “heart and soul” of that location.
City / municipality: Calabash
The heart”: Callahans from Calabash
Place: 9973 Beach Drive SW, Calabash, NC 28467
What makes it the “heart”: For such a small town, Calabash certainly has its stake in iconic companies. The fishing village on the water is known for its long-standing fish restaurants in the “Calabash style”. Before heading to the water, however, on the corner of River Road and Beach Drive is Callahan’s of Calabash, one of the most unique souvenir shops you will ever find.
At first glance, the massive wooden building looks like several different shops. The more than 35,000 square meter souvenir shop looks a bit overwhelming from the outside. It is certainly not the neat and tidy large store that lines malls across the country. It’s a distinctive building that conveys part of the character that you find in the store.
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Inside, the huge selection is broken down into more manageable sections, including clothing, home accessories, homemade fudge, stationery, jewelry, and nautical gifts, to name a few.
St. Nick Nacks is one of the most popular areas of the store. The year-round Christmas shop in Callahan’s has grown to be the largest Christmas shop in the Carolinas. The store has more than 150 Christmas trees and at least 4 million ornaments.
It is the type of business best enjoyed simply by walking around and discovering the many nooks and crannies and displays that can satisfy even the most discerning shopper.
Clark Callahan started the business when he bought the existing Calabash Nautical Gifts in 1978. He led the company’s growth and the business is now run by son Eric Callahan and nephew Dean Spatholt. Unfortunately, Clark Callahan passed away on May 29th.
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Clark Callahan was certainly the man who made Callahan what it is today. When Callahan bought the store, the gift shop focused on nautical-themed gifts. Over the years, the store has been expanded several times and the existing area is now more than 15 times the original area. As the goods continued to grow and the business expanded, Callahan changed the name to Callahan’s of Calabash in the mid-1990s to better reflect the growth.
Callahan was a beloved member of the community affectionately known as âMr. C. âwas called. He was known for his generosity and the joy of helping others. His son Eric said he knows almost all of the 300 employees in his five companies by name and that he really cares about their lives. When he spoke to employees and customers, he “made you feel like the most important person in the world”.
Karen Wilson is part of the Callahan’s purchasing team and one of many long-time employees in the business. She started working at Callahan in the mid-1980s. Looking back on her time in the store, she emphasized the positive environment that Clark Callahan had created. She appreciated the way he fostered a team experience and respected each employee’s talents to âuse their own creativity and leadership skills to be part of something very uniqueâ.
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Wilson also credits Callahan with the ability to successfully preserve the past and plan for the future. âCustomers have a very nostalgic connection to the gift shop, and Clark, and now Eric and Dean, have taken great care to maintain a certain level of familiarity. It’s a unique balance that is really fun. People want to come in and have the same experience they had as a child, but still know that they are stepping into something very new and dynamic. ”
Eric Callahan echoed that sentiment, emphasizing the need to keep much of the business as it has been over the years. âI see it stay the same – apart from expanding our online presence and e-commerce sales, but we will always have the roots of our brick and mortar business – stopped by with the Taffy, Shell and T-shirt families For.”
What’s next: Future expansion is always possible with Callahan’s! However, the biggest change in the future will most likely be the expansion of their e-commerce.
It was launched shortly after the April 2020 pandemic outbreak. They started small with around 20 popular items and now have hundreds of items available online and will continue to grow that part of the business.
Justine Schwindel, Marketing Manager at Callahan Dining & Retail, said, “The store will always exist and be a landmark for the people who visit it and can touch, feel and see the items,” but this is another way of engaging with our Customers.