Small businesses thrive in downtown Rehoboth
REHOBOTH BEACH — When Herb and Shirley Chappelear founded Christmas Spirit in the 1970s, the family aspect of running it was important to them. Their son, Scott, felt the same way. When he decided to give the business up, he also decided he wasn’t going to put it on the market.
“He said, ‘Either you take it or I’m going to close it,’” current owner and longtime employee Jill Hudson said. “I just couldn’t imagine it not being here. It’s my life.”
Hudson had been working at Christmas Spirit since 1988. When she bought the business three years ago, it was as much about continuing the culture the Chappelears started as it was selling ornaments.
“We have so many people come in year after year and just want to say hello and get that year’s ornament,” she said. “It’s a tradition for multiple generations.”
It’s easy to think of the family vacation traditions that endear Rehoboth Beach to so many visitors, but a significant part of that is being able to go to the places they remember from the past. Beyond just running a business though, there’s living up to the expectations that build up around it.
The attraction for business owners like Hudson is manifold. Obviously, being able to make a living and build something is paramount for any business owner. Building something generational (whether for your own family or not) that also is part of a larger culture is another thing altogether.
Because of the recurring tourist nature of the town, family businesses get to see themselves as integral parts of family vacations. They get to be part of thousands of family stories and memories.
According to Greer Maneval, president of the Rehoboth Beach Main Street board of directors, most of the family-owned businesses in town have a sense of tradition that goes beyond just running a specific business.
“I think part of it is it’s become sort of a family tradition and it’s passed down from generation to generation,” she said.
Maneval recounted the story of Browseabout Books, which, like Christmas Spirit, was sold to a long-tenured employee rather than risk losing the Browseabout legacy to a company that might or might not have kept it a bookstore.
“[Current owner Susan Kehoe] had the same family kind of feel about how important it is to the town to have an incredible independent bookstore,” Maneval said. “And [former owners Steve and Barbara Crane] wanted to keep that whole sense of their tradition alive, they didn’t want to put the business up for sale.”
The Cranes, like the Chappelears, aren’t really the exceptions. Rehoboth Beach Main Street counts 93 family-owned businesses among its number. Six of those have been operating continuously for 75 years or more, but nearly all of the 93 have been open more than 25 years.
Certainly part of that is continued economic success, but there are other attractions that have to do with owning a small business in a beach town that appeal to families.
Vickie Feist bought the Winding Beam Collection 25 years ago as much as its own endeavor as well supplementing her other furniture store, Mitchell’s Interiors. For her, though, having a shop in Rehoboth Beach means being able to connect with the same people each year.
“Most people in retail in Rehoboth Beach could choose to rent the space out [rather than run a business],” she said. “We love what we do, that’s why we do it.”
Dan Slagle, Rehoboth Beach Main Street’s executive director, had a similar take.
“Main Street, that’s all we are. We promote downtown, but also we also support the residents and we also support the city on different projects,” he said. “So I think it’s important as a community, we all work together very well.”
For example, Main Street funded the barriers that allowed outdoor dining during the pandemic. The push was to make sure that the businesses that had committed to staying family-owned and in town could get through.
“Everybody was looking for ideas and everybody was trying to help each other stay in business,” Slagle said. “I know Main Street was trying to help people get grants to stay in business. I think it was a community that really came together and worked together.”