Christmas in July 2017
Ho, ho, ho. Although the calendar says that jingle bells won't be ringing for another six months, it's never too soon to celebrate the holidays here at River Street Sweets.
Every July, our candy gets to show off during our annual holiday photoshoot. We spend several days dressing it up in its finest bows and ribbons and give it all of the glorious attention it deserves. Each and every one of our holiday gift items have a chance to strike a pose during this time, along with select staff members, family and friends.
This year, we were delighted to have a surprise visit from St. Nick himself, up close and personal. He was thrilled to indulge in some of our signature pralines, the superstars of our catalog, as well as some bear claws, glazed pecans and other goodies.
To fully appreciate how far our holiday catalog has come over the last 40-plus years, you need know a little bit about our history. As we've grown and expanded, it has too.
In 1973, River Street was nothing more than a ghost town, a crumbling row of former cotton warehouses known as Savannah's wild, wild west. Inhabited by mostly vagrants and others trying to avoid the police, the crime ridden area was a place that locals and tourists avoided.
Where others saw a dilapidated, wharf side wasteland, the Strickland family saw opportunity — a diamond in the rough. They chose 13 East River Street as a spot for a gift shop, negotiated a $50-a-month lease with a landlord who tried to talk them out of it, and soon The Cotton Bale store was open for business.
It was one of the first shops to open on River Street in more than a century. A few other brave retail pioneers followed suit, and a patchwork collection of t-shirt and souvenir shops began to emerge.
&Initially, because of the Strickland's love of the holidays, The Cotton Bale was mainly a Christmas shop. It carried a variety of artisan holiday ornaments from Germany, along with Habersham Plantation furniture and some other gifts. To help the sales, which were very light that first few year, the Strickland's created a small gift catalog for their customers.
The following year, the fate of The Cotton Bale and the street in general was called into question when the Savannah City Council heavily considered turning it into a parking lot. Although the small band of the street's original merchants had brightened up a few spots on the street, most of it was still neglected and rundown.
When they learned about the plans for the parking lot, local architects Eric Meyerhoff and Bob Gunn gave the city an alternative. Instead of a parking lot, they suggested that the area be transformed into a 30-acre, pedestrian friendly park that would attract visitors instead of scare them away.
The city agreed, and in 1975, broke ground on the $7.33 million Riverfront Urban Renewal Project. Inspired by the original old world charm of River Street itself and the European waterfront cities of Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Oslo, Meyerhoff's red brick design transformed the street into a picturesque, red brick promenade. The project took two years to complete. In 1977, when it was finished, numerous new businesses, restaurants and shops started opening on the street. And as word spread, more and more people began to come.
By 1978, The Cotton Bale was getting an increasing number of customers. People who visited the shop always asked the same question. Where can we get something good to eat? The realization hit: instead of figuring out what people wanted to buy, the Strickland's need to figure out what they wanted to eat. So in the spring of that year, the family visited the Atlanta Gift Mart in the hopes of finding some edible items that would cater to customer appetites. On a whim, they purchased a fudge pot. The fudge was an immediate success.
In fact, customers started asking for other sweet treats, so the Strickland's scrambled to come up with ideas. They relied on their own favorites for inspiration, so pralines — a longstanding family tradition — were the next natural choice, followed by bear claws, glazed pecans and salt water taffy made on an antique 1933 taffy machine.
One day, the family realized that candy was the future of the store. They sold the last few Christmas ornaments from a card table in front of the main entrance, took down the The Cotton Bale sign and replaced it with the huge, red River Street Sweets awning you see today.
But Santa wasn't done with River Street Sweets. The holidays soon proved to be the most popular time for our gourmet southern candy. Customers kept asking for gift catalogs so they could mail our treats to their family and friends.
We started off small, replacing The Cotton Bale gift item photographs with pictures of our candy. As we grew, so did the catalog. We initially mailed it to a few hundred customers. Then a few thousand. Today, we send tens of thousands of catalogs to our customers each holiday season.
That's why Christmas in July is so important to us. The annual holiday photo-shoot is typically a four-day event, involving staff, family members and friends.
We would love to know what you think about our holiday catalog. What do like the most? What would like to see? Let us know by sending an email to JenM@riverstreetsweets.com. And in the meantime, stay sweet!