He arrived in Charleston full of vim and vinegar, eager to change the world through politics.
Along with lobbying, he started collecting and selling vintage and antique pieces online. Growing public interest led to a funky shop specializing in mid-century modern pieces from the ’50s and ’60s. The Purple Moon thrived on Lee Street.
Eventually, disenchanted with political infighting, Chuck Hamsher dropped politics to channel that change-the-world energy into his retail business.
Today, the 59-year-old merchant reigns as a kind of Pied Piper, leading a resurgence of the downtown shopping district.
He’s a jovial soul, quick with a quip and a laugh. The Andy Warhol socks tell you something.
“I was born in Louisville. My godparents are Tom Cruise’s parents. We moved to Huntington when I was 2-and-a-half. My mother was from there.
“My father worked for American National Rubber in Ceredo. He was vice president and sales manager there.
“He started his own business, Sponge Products Corp., when I was getting out of high school. I went into that with him. It didn’t do too well. He died in January of ’79 and left my mother, brother and me to run it.
“The ’70s were a terrible time to start a business. Interest rates were 16 and 17 percent. Most of our end product was automotive. But I learned a lot, some things that have paid off in this business.
“As a kid, I wanted to be in politics. My brother had a severe hearing problem. When I was 10, we went to Johns Hopkins to get his hearing worked out.
“It was the weekend Martin Luther King was assassinated. There was a curfew. There wasn’t any water in the hotel. It was a mess.
“It triggered something in me. It was the late ’60s, and there was a lot going on. By the time I was 14, I’d spend my afternoons at Democrat headquarters volunteering.
“I went to Marshall to major in political science. That’s what brought me to Charleston. I worked for the Citizen Action Group.
“I spent most of the next 35 years either lobbying, working in political campaigns or doing community organizing. I never wanted to run for office. I prefer behind the scenes.
“Connie and I got married in 1999. We were collectors.
“We started selling online and ended up with antique mall booths. In 2005, we opened our first downtown store on Lee Street. We were there for years.
“I didn’t quit my day job, lobbying for health organizations. We didn’t know if the store would last six months, but we knew we could cover our basic costs. It took off.
“After three years, we moved beside the Blossom Dairy. We just moved over here last summer. This was Steiger’s Furs for years and years. This move tripled our foot traffic.
“We carry mid-century modern. I grew up with this. When my mom was decorating her home in the ’50s and ’60s, this was called contemporary furniture.
“There are people who collect and folks who just enjoy the aesthetics of it. It is arguably the last really good period of American design for the home, solid wood furniture that isn’t meant to be disposable.
“We sell a lot of vintage glass. What kept me in this was collecting Blenko, Rainbow, Bishoff and Viking, and all those great glass companies.
“We sell a lot of designer furniture, Danish modern-inspired pieces and a lot of art, vintage and local artists.
“We also do estate sales. One was the Gandee estate, a 25,000-square-foot warehouse crammed with antiques. We priced about 8,000 items. It was a crazy sale.
“We never know when we are going to find things. Years ago, we went into this old trailer put there in the ’60s. It was filled with European and mid-century pieces. The folks had been in the military and bought all this stuff in Europe and shipped it to the United States.
“We sold a bedroom suite online and shipped it to Los Angeles — from Campbells Creek to L.A.
“What we like best about this is the hunt. We never know what we are going to find.
“We have some lamps up front that came from Putnam County. The gentleman came from New York to work for Carbide and brought all these ’50s and ’60s pieces in pristine condition. We just shipped one of the lamps to Florida.
“The internet has changed how things are dealt. We were lucky to have done the internet before we opened a store. It’s a world market now, completely different.
“I don’t think we could have survived this long just on the Charleston market. We were close to leaving in the spring but had some folks who worked closely with us to keep us here and find a location that would work for us.
“We are pretty bullish on downtown Charleston. I think we are close to making a big comeback. A lot of people talk about the old downtown, and it certainly is different, but like in any other city in the country now, the downtown is heading for a fall.
“What we have now are boutiques like ours, art stores and clothing stores where people get service they aren’t going to find online or at big-box stores, things that are unique.
“We’re getting ready for Christmas. We’re bringing out the aluminum Christmas trees. We do the full ’50s and ’60s retro Christmas here.
“A lot of people come here because they are going to find something different. We are happy to fill that niche in Charleston.
“We do auctions on Facebook. We started that last year, and people love it. That’s why we’ve been here 13 years. We’ve had to continually reinvent ourselves and not get stagnant.
“We’ve got two sides to the store. We have an art show of Doug Goebel’s original drafts. We’re taking that down to bring in Santa Claus.
“This was a surprise to me. I always thought I was going to spend a lot of time lobbying and working on political campaigns, but I got to like it less and less. It’s gotten uglier and meaner.
“There were people 15 and 20 years ago that I worked with, and we never agreed on a thing, but we were the best of friends. The current environment doesn’t want that to happen. Everyone is bumping heads. It just wasn’t fun anymore.
“This is the first time in 35 years I haven’t set foot on the Capitol grounds and I kind of liked it.
“I wanted to come to Charleston and make a difference in the state the way I was doing it, but I’m really happy now making a difference downtown.
“As the mall deteriorated, more shops have opened downtown, so we think there is an opportunity here.”