Respect the River Street Hustle
As a chest-beating cheerleader and self-appointed savior of our fair city’s soul, I’m probably the last person you’d expect to be hawking souvenirs to strangers.
After all, my feelings about our city’s changing culturescape are hardly a secret. Low-key misanthropy is one of my dearest hobbies, and I am often an enthusiastic participant in the popular local pastimes of Complaining About the Next New Hotel and Laughing As Woo-Woo Girls Navigate Centuries-Old Streets in Stilettos.
Another game Savannah denizens play is Avoid River Street at All Costs, steering clear of the drunken hordes and relying on our friend The Stone Stairs of Death for regular dispatches of Darwinian behavior. Common sentiment maintains that Savannah’s oldest section endures as a tourist trolley stop, and that surely when General Oglethorpe claimed this promising bluff to build his agronomic utopia he did not have in mind tawdry t-shirt shops and gutters sloshing with Yuengling.
Yet kicking down the cobblestones that once served as ballast for ships scrapped long ago, I find myself excited at the prospect of a ten-hour day on the river talking with daytrippers, as most days my only conversation is conducted in Dog. The sun sends golden rays across the water as I skip over the streetcar rails and head into the River Street Marketplace on the east end, where the other vendors are already setting up their wares in the open air pavilion.
“Howdy and good morning,” nods Ian, laying out sterling charms and shiny hoops at Savannah Handcrafted Jewelry.
“Should be busy today, tons of weddings in town,” says Deb from Blue Ridge Beef Jerky. “Do you like my dress?” She spins her A-line skirt covered with cats, a recent find at Everest Imports, festooned with Tibetan flags a few feet away.
I appreciate the camaraderie of my fellow booth dwellers, who treat me as one of their own even though I’m only a part-time soldier in these tourista trenches. I plop my bag behind the counter, flip on a half dozen fans, and begin arranging the wooden maps and patents of Get Gifty With It as the first trolley of the day rolls in.
“Hey there, where y’all from?” I sing to a group of older ladies in matching fuchsia t-shirts emblazoned with “Living Legends: The Reunion Tour.”
“Ohio,” they answer in unison, giving a trained eye over the products as they breeze through to the other side of the pavilion to look at sunglasses. No sale, but right behind them is a young couple carrying adult slushies (it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, honey!) who immediately snatch up a map of the local waterways, then put in a custom order for their Pennsylvania hometown as I chat them up about the weather.
“Y’all stay dry, ya hear?” I call after them as my mind goes “cha-ching.” Tourists are much more attractive when they’re spending money, especially the drunk ones, they spend more money. Committed capitalist or not, it’s a concrete cold fact that’s what makes this city go ‘round (and after a two-year search, it looks like we’re finally going to get a permanent City Manager to spin this baby up to speed.)
I’m honing my sales schpiel at the behest of my buddy and shop owner Russell Shostack, who kindly offers me shifts from time to time to fill in the gaps of a freelance writing career and exercise social skills that deteriorated into canine grunts and interpretative dances during COVID. I met Russ back when we both worked at the cannabis accessories start-up that went end-down in flames; we bonded over being the only employees who showed up for work before 11am. After that mess Russell staked his skills into this venture on the river, expanding its offerings and growing its online presence into a nice little empire serving the appetites of vacationing folks with money to burn.
“Look, I’m not into mass consumption, but the market is here, and people seem to like what we’ve got going,” he says as a massive container ship chugs by towards the port, casting its shadow along the brick patio.
“And it’s locally made, so they’re getting a real piece of Savannah.”
True, GGWI maps are made from regionally-sourced pine and laser-etched just over the river in Bluffton by huge CNC milling machines, which I describe in my schpiel as reverse 3-D printers that scrape out negative space with utmost precision. Although sometimes late in the day when a customer asks if I make them myself I nod very seriously and answer, “Yes, me and the elves scratch them out at night with a spork.”
Obviously, I am not a natural-born salesperson. But my quirky personality is a fine fit here, my enthusiasm buoyed by peddling something other than plastic schlock shipped in from China. In addition to the laser-etched maps, there are rows of black and white photos of the alphabet and objects that resemble letters, many snapped locally, like the lights of the Savannah Theater or a live oak that looks like an “Y.” People spell out their last names or favorite places, maybe adding a photo of the word “Family” drawn in the sand. It’s adorable and creative, and helping folks put them together melts my heart.
Case and point: During the afternoon lull, two women in work boots walk by, unsmiling until I lay on my Southern sales schtick. Turns out they’re from Miami, animal trainers delivering a service Golden Retriever to a client with PTSD. We chat for a half an hour about animal rescue and the effort to rename Calhoun Square, which they agree ought to be done immediately.
“I mean, duh, the dude was from South Carolina, why is it even an issue?” asks one.
“Savannah,” I say with a shrug, and they nod sympathetically.
They end up buying two framed designs, one with a “Mrs. & Mrs.” photo and their initials, the other depicting the initials of their four kids. “This is just the coolest idea, and we’ve really enjoyed talking to you,” they say, blowing me kisses on their way out. Cha-ching, and happy tears.
I love when interactions take unexpected turns; it is always a valuable lesson to find that first impressions are usually wrong—the biker couple in full Harley-Davidson gear who own a flower shop in Pittsburgh, the sleepy-eyed hippie chick who drops $115 on a large map of the Appalachian Trail for her mom.
I’ve also found that this gig has helped teach me to keep my mouth shut around those who are, shall we say, not in my bubble. When a fellow in overalls and no shirt underneath asks if the etched patent for the AR-15 rifle comes in different colors, I show him the options on the iPad without comment. He orders it in gray. Cha-ching, and yuck.
However, the man wearing a Florida State hat catches my ire.
“Sir, I find your swag offensive, this here is Georgia Bulldog country,” I say, arranging my face into the disapproving expression of the Church Lady. He laughs and spends a couple hundred dollars. Cha-ching, and Go Dawgs.
And so the day goes, the ambrosial aroma of Spanky’s chicken fingers wafting into the market as the sun begins to yawn backwards over the bridge. The to-go cups proliferate, and River Street’s party reputation starts to emerge, the squeals becoming louder and more barnyard-like. I slowly close up shop as the last trolley picks up the tired, huddled masses to take them back to their hotels, feet and wallets exhausted.
A brief confab with Ian and Deb confirms it’s been a prosperous day for all. As I click the pavilion’s wooden doors back into place, I’ve got a pocketful of cash and gratitude for an honest day’s work, and little something else: Pride. As much as I like to rip on tourist fashion and roll my eyes about River Street’s gaudy glory, I kind of love being a secret street team ambassador for Savannah even more. It’s quite something to live somewhere that attracts people from all over, that might even set the standard for Southern hospitality on its best days. (Speaking of which, kudos to the Thunderbird Inn for stepping up as the first hotel to offer a $15/hr living wage to all of its employees!)
Looking around, I’m reminded that our sea level scene has its high points: I happily admit to Plant Riverside’s uplevel of the west end, though I know many old schoolers join me in lamenting the recent loss of live music bastion The Bayou Café. While I’ve yet to visit them post-pandemic, Olympia Café and Vic’s On the River remain among my favorite restaurants. I bet some local love would be appreciated, and I promise myself that if sales go as well next shift, I’ll treat myself to dinner.
Just then, in a cloud of perfume and ombréd hair extensions, comes—what else?—a gaggle of screeching bridesmaids in sashes. They’re teetering on heels and clinging to each other; one misstep and they all go down into the puddled street together.
I think about heading in the other direction, or evilly, sticking out a foot.
Instead, I put out a hand to steady a passing elbow.
“Watch your step there, ladies, loose bricks everywhere,” I say to grateful shrieks.
“OhMYGod I love this place, everyone’s so NICE!” one screams.
I watch the pack wobble on, shake my head, then climb the stone stairs back to civilian life.
Come on down and see me sometime ~ JLL