Mary Nase knows exactly what the biggest seller is at Mast General Store in downtown Greenville - even if it's not listed in her inventory.
"Nostalgia," says Nase, who until August 2015 had managed the Main Street destination since its opening in 2003. "People like to look around at the antiques on the walls (which are not for sale). Everyone feels like they're coming home to better times."
That's the philosophy for Mast General Stores' 10 outlets nationally but especially in Greenville. One of the chain's largest, it's a place to buy outdoor gear, casual clothing, shoes, old-fashioned candies and knickknacks - anything one might find in the days of general stores.
But Mast also is a favorite place for those who just want to window shop, a haven from high-pressure sales. About 70 percent of the store's business is tourists, Nase says.
That's one reason Mayor Knox White courted the Mast chain to locate in Greenville's revitalized downtown and personally recruited Nase as its manager. "We started (the surge in shopping downtown), along with the (Liberty) bridge and the ballpark (Fluor Field)," both in the city's historic West End, Nase says. "We're the biggest store downtown, kind of the foundation for retailers."
And other retailers have followed suit. Not just national chains but smaller ones such as Mast and its next-door neighbor, O.P. Taylor's Toy Store, which also opened in 2003. The downtown area now has more than 100 shops and boutiques nestled among the walkable, tree-lined streets.
One of three toy stores named (sort of) for the fictional sheriff's son on the long-running "Andy Griffith Show," O.P. Taylor's is easy to find: look for two life-sized toy soldiers on either side of the front door.
"We had a woman who had her wedding pictures taken, in her gown, with the toy soldiers," says employee Jim Giannico.
Store manager Bill Gaines, a retired school teacher, who, while visiting the original O.P. Taylor's in Brevard, NC, told his wife, "I could work in this place" and wound up opening Greenville's store, says his is "the (three-store chain's) smallest and the best - we just are." On any given day, kids and parents flock inside the cozy shop to buy or just to look.
"We do no advertising except for some radio spots at Christmas," Gaines says.
Among the store's more than 12,000 different items are such brands as Lego, Playmobil, Breyer Collectible Horses and Calico Critters, along with books, action figures, games and puzzles, balls and even a baby section.
"No video games or electronics, except in the science section," Gaines says. "Our philosophy is kids should learn while they're playing; they need to use their imaginations and their muscles." Adults, too, enjoy seeing toys like those they once played with, he says.
Mast General and O.P. Taylor's are two of the more iconic stores along Main Street but hardly alone. Others with strong followings include Carolina2California, Charleston Cooks, Horizon Records, and Llyn Strong fine art jewelry.
Then there's Ayers Leather Shop, which in August 2015 moved from Main Street to a location a half-block away on W. North Street. Deb Ayers' shop is one of the oldest in downtown, dating to 1950, when it was run by her parents. She joined the business after college, and her son, Payton Ayers Agnew, is a third-generation manager.
"He wants to one day celebrate 100 years of the business," she says.
Ayers witnessed the turnaround in Main Street up close. At one point, she says, the downtown location was used for storage for a store at McAlister Square Mall, before a fire in 1980 destroyed much of that site. "Then we were in Haywood Mall, but they wanted the local stores to be regional or move out," she says.
"That day, my dad told my mom, ‘That'll be the salvation of downtown.' Local stores began looking here again, and then (former city mayor) Max Heller helped get the Hyatt, and that opened the floodgates."
In 2002, Main Street's Liberty Bridge over the Reedy River opened up the West End and Falls Park on The Reedy, and business boomed. "You could now walk safely along Main Street any time," Ayers says. "The park, the river - it makes you relax."
Businesses help one another, Ayers says. The store has restaurant menus for customers to view. "It's a neighborhood feel. We all rise or sink together."
"It's hard to envision what it was in the 1980s," Ayers says. "It's been a fairy tale."
Of course, Greenville still has plenty of traditional mall shopping, including Haywood Mall and The Shops at Greenridge. Haywood offers most anything shoppers are looking for, with more than 120 stores, including anchors Belk, Dillard's, JC Penney, Sears and Macy's. The Shops at Greenridge include Talbot's, Ann Taylor, Chico's and other womens' boutiques, as well as fun restaurants such as P.F. Chang's and Salsarita's.
For folks who want their outdoor gear, be sure to make a stop at REI and Cabella's, both on Woodruff Rd.
For listings of downtown and area shopping, visit www.UpcountrySC.com or www.visitgreenvillesc.com.