Several years ago, Dick and Cindy Rudisill cleverly converted the basement of their home in Syracuse, N.Y., to look much like an old-fashioned country store.
Using antique advertising pieces they had purchased at auctions, flea markets and estate sales all across the country, the Rudisills were able to capture the essence of a vintage store.
Visitors to their house were astonished and immediately fell in love with the room, saying it brought back wonderful childhood memories.
When the couple moved to Aiken, S.C., about four years ago, they decided to use their memorabilia from yesteryear to develop a truly unique candy store called Cyndi’s Sweet Shoppe in a 100-year-old building on Laurens Street.
“We have been open for a year and a half and we are the only candy store in the CSRA,” said Dick Rudisill, standing behind the store’s counter surrounded by everything from old-fashioned penny candy to gourmet chocolates. “We get our candy from all over and if you don’t see your favorite candy here, we’ll make every effort to find it.”
The charm and beauty of downtown Aiken helped make the Rudisills’ dream of a candy store a reality, Dick Rudisill said.
“All the business owners work together and the downtown is so friendly and safe. It’s the perfect place for us,” Dick Rudisill said, adding that he and his wife first visited Aiken about eight years ago when they were searching for a place to retire. “I think one of the things I like best is there are no chains downtown. Everything is local and you just can’t find that in many downtowns.”
In fact, as soon as some cities begin to attract tourists, they often find themselves being overturn with chain stores, Dick Rudisill said.
“That has been a growing complaint about places like Asheville, N.C.,” he said. “But Aiken is very unique that way. These are local businesses and everyone knows one another.”
While many visitors will flock to the city this week for the 38th annual Aiken’s Makin’ Arts and Crafts Show held this Friday and Saturday, there is a whole lot more to this “horse town” than just the ceramics, glass work and wood carvings offered at the two-day festival.
Over the past few years, downtown Aiken has exploded with new chef-owned restaurants and locally owned retail stores that seem to have combined perfectly with some of long-time businesses in the downtown area.
“It’s a great mix,” said Lida Bard of the Aiken Downtown Development Association. “We have awesome restaurants and great retail. I think people are attracted to downtown Aiken because we have smaller, boutiquey kinds of stores where you can find handmade items to give as gifts. It is not the mass-produced items that you can find other places.”
For example, just down from the popular, award-winning Aiken Brewery Company on Laurens Street is Equine Divine, an equine-inspired gallery and boutique that specializes in sporting art, home decor, equestrian jewelry and riding and fashion apparel.
“So, you walk in and see home items and everyday street clothes, but they also sell riding pants and show coats,” Bard said. “That is uniquely Aiken.”
In April 2011, Threads, a women’s contemporary clothing boutique, also opened on Laurens Street.
The store offers affordable clothing that is American designed and manufactured, as well as handmade jewelries and accessories, said store clerk Rachel Ethridge.
“We’ve done really well here,” said Ethridge, who is originally from Columbia, S.C. “Aiken has a good boutique scene and downtown has a great community feel. Everybody is really nice to everybody else and all the store people know each other.”
Ethridge believes business owners realize that Aiken is growing, due to, in part, the “sport of kings” — polo.
Aiken’s reputation as a horse community has attracted a surge of wealthy residents over the last few decades, many of whom live in golf-like communities that situate stately homes around polo fields instead of an 18-hole course.
The winter colonists would bring their horses to Aiken to extend their equestrian activities such as riding, racing and fox hunting throughout the year.
In fact, polo has been played on Aiken’s Whitney Field continuously since 1882, according to the Aiken Visitors Center.
There is also Aiken’s ever-growing national reputation as a hidden gem.
The city with a population of roughly 30,000 has shown up on Money magazine’s list of best places to live and has also been ranked in various publications as one of the nation’s best places to retire.
“Aiken is definitely growing,” Ethridge said. “Whenever there is an opening downtown, the space fills up in about a month. We don’t have many vacant storefronts here.”
Right next door to Threads is Aiken Dry Goods, which features everything from incredibly unique cowboy boots to leather hats and belts selected by owner Jami Chandler, who moved to Aiken from Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“We have some great little clothing stores with fun fashions that you are not going to find at the mall,” Bard said. “It is such a community here. Everybody works together to better the look and feel of downtown.”
For more than 30 years, Plum Pudding on Laurens Street has thrived as a gourmet kitchen store in the heart of downtown Aiken.
One of the reasons they have been so successful is they think locally, Bard said.
“Plum Pudding has some really cool kitchen items and dishware. They even have a plate pattern called Aiken,” Bard said, laughing. “It was designed with the feel of Aiken, which I think is really original. We have a little bit of everything in downtown Aiken, from new businesses like the old-fashioned candy store to bridal and antique stores. All the business owners come together to really make it something wonderful.”
And the business owners encourage a variety of downtown events that bring more people to the area, Bard said.
Over the summer, the ADDA, in partnership with the City of Aiken and the Aiken County Farmers Market, hosted the Farmers Market in The Alley every Thursday evening.
“People loved it,” Bard said, adding the ADDA is hoping to expand the community event to include more artists and musicians.
The Aiken Center for the Arts on Laurens Street also features regular gallery exhibits by local, state and regional artists with a variety of artists displaying their works for sale in the gallery store.
Along with art exhibits, the Aiken Center for the Arts also offers education classes and events throughout the year, such as A Taste of Wine and Art in October.
“That is our big annual event that celebrates culinary art and visual art next month,” said
Tandji Simmons, administration and rental coordinator for the Aiken Center for the Arts. “And we are going to be celebrating all of October with wine tasting classes and painting classes for wine and art. So it should be a lot of fun.”
Alongside downtown Aiken’s thriving retail stores and art galleries is a variety of restaurants that have transformed this town into a fine dining mecca.
Restaurants such as Prime Steakhouse on Richland Avenue featuring the finest in aged steaks and whole lobsters to Malia’s on Laurens Street, which showcases incredible entrees such as grilled New Zealand lamb ribs and pecan crusted salmon, have raised the bar for downtown dining in Aiken.
Several familiar restaurants to the Augusta area have also established successful, casual-dining experiences in Aiken including Takosushi, New Moon Cafe, The Pizza Joint and the soon-to-open Mellow Mushroom.
About six months ago, Joe and Arlene Iannelli, owners of Casa Bella Italian restaurant in Aiken, decided to introduce downtown to something a little new and different to the area.
They opened Aiken Speakeasy & Eats on Laurens Street, giving homage to the roaring 1920s.
The new restaurant, which serves both lunch and dinner, features a “password” at the door to get into the establishment, much like customers in the Prohibition era. The password can be found on the restaurant’s Facebook page, by calling the restaurant or just by knocking on the door.
“The restaurant is fashioned after the 1920s,” said waitress Jenna Decampli. “We have some great cocktails and live jazz. It’s a lot of fun and people love it.”
The lunch menu offers creative dishes such as wild boar goulash and lobster rolls, while the dinner menu includes scallops wrapped in hickory bacon, braised beef short ribs and a French lamb rack.
Sheena Wood, 28, is also a waitress at Aiken Speakeasy & Eats and she said people are impressed with the variety of restaurants offered in the downtown area.
“I know Mellow Mushroom is about to open in The Alley. People are excited about that,” Wood said. “It seems like there is always something new opening up.”
Just this week, Wood said her mother was visiting from out of town and has absolutely fallen in love with Aiken.
“She has really enjoying walking around town all this week,” Wood said. “It is a very tourist-friendly town. She says it is really tranquil and relaxing.”
At the Aiken Visitors Center located in the historic Holley Building on Laurens Street, 21-year-old Lindsey Asbill says she is proud to be an Aikenite.
“I was born here and I really enjoy working downtown. It has great energy,” Asbill said, adding there are plenty of events held year-round such as the excitement of Steepchase, Aiken’s Makin’, the Blessing of the Hounds in November, the Lobster Race held in the spring and the upcoming St. Mary’s Chocolate Festival in October. “There is always events going on in Aiken.”
Just minutes from the downtown area, visitors can also enjoy several area attractions including Hopelands Gardens, a 14-acre public park wrapped behind a serpentine brick wall featuring garden paths that wind among 100-year-old magnolias and enormous oak trees, she said.
There is also Hitchcock Woods, a 2,000-acre woodland preserve nestled in the heart of downtown Aiken that features numerous trails and paths for hiking and horseback riding.
It is known in town as the “biggest privately owned, urban forest in America,” according to the Aiken Visitors Center.
Just minutes from downtown Aiken is the city’s “Avenue of Oaks” lining South Boundary, which is a quick drive that can’t missed. And east of Whiskey Road and north of South Boundary lies quite dirt roads lined with equestrian fencing, training farms, horse crossings, polo fields and racing tracks.
The speed limit is only 15 miles an hour, so travelers can keep the horses and riders safe while enjoying the scenery.
Asbill also said there are truly magnificent historic hotels and inns to stay the night in Aiken including The Willcox, which was built in the late 19th century and has served as the playground for royalty and statesmen such as Winston Churchill and Harold Vanderbilt.
Aiken also offers the Carriage House Inn on Laurens Street, which was built in 1872, and the 68-room Hotel Aiken, that was built in 1898, which are both located in the heart of the downtown area.
For Dick Rudisill and his wife, downtown Aiken has been everything they hoped it would be.
When word began to spread that there was a vintage candy store in downtown Aiken, much like those you can find only in larger cities such as Charleston and Savannah, Dick Rudisill said he began getting visitors from all over, including Augusta.
“I just had a guy come in from Augusta the other day because his wife loves Jelly Belly jelly beans and nobody in the CSRA has all the variety of Jelly Belly candies that we have,” Dick Rudisill said, as he walked over to dozens of jars of Jelly Belly candies. “This is just a fun place to enjoy the day.
For more information about downtown Aiken, check out visitaikensc.com.