Small businesses thrive in downtown Rehoboth

Established in the 1970s, Christmas Spirit has remained locally owned, even as the second generation family business passed to a long-time employee. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JILL HUDSON

REHOBOTH BEACH When Herb and Shirley Chappelear founded Christmas Spirit in the 1970’s, the family aspect of leadership was important to them. Her son Scott felt the same way. When he decided to give up the business, he also decided that he would not put it on the market.

“He said, ‘You either take it or I’ll close it,'” said Jill Hudson, the current owner and longtime collaborator. “I just couldn’t imagine that it wasn’t here. It’s my life.”

Hudson had worked at Christmas Spirit since 1988. When she bought the business three years ago, she was as concerned with continuing the culture started by the Chappelears as with selling jewelry.

“We have so many people year after year who just want to say hello and get this year’s adornment,” she said. “It’s a tradition for several generations.”

It’s easy to think of the family vacation traditions that make Rehoboth Beach so popular with so many visitors, but a key part of it is being able to visit the places they remember from the past. Aside from just running a business, it’s all about living up to the expectations that come with it.

The appeal for entrepreneurs like Hudson is multifaceted. Of course, being able to make a living and build something is paramount for any entrepreneur. Building something across generations (whether for your own family or not) that is also part of a larger culture is another matter entirely.

Due to the recurring tourist character of the city, family businesses see themselves as an integral part of family vacations. You become part of thousands of family stories and memories.

According to Greer Maneval, President of the Rehoboth Beach Main Street Board of Directors, most family businesses in the city have a sense of tradition that goes beyond running a specific business.

“I think part of that is that it’s kind of become a family tradition and it’s passed down from generation to generation,” she said.

Maneval told the story of Browseabout Books which, like Christmas Spirit, was sold to a longtime employee rather than risk losing Browseabout’s legacy to a company that may or may not have kept it as a bookstore.

“[Current owner Susan Kehoe] had that same family feel about how important it is to the city to have an incredible independent bookstore,” Maneval said. “And [former owners Steve and Barbara Crane] wanted to keep that whole sense of their heritage alive, they didn’t want to put the company up for sale.”

The cranes, like the chappelears, are not really the exceptions. Rehoboth Beach Main Street counts 93 family businesses among their number. Six of these have been in continuous operation for 75 years or more, but almost all of the 93 have been open for more than 25 years.

That certainly includes continued commercial success, but there are other attractions related to owning a small business in a beach town that appeal to families.

Vickie Feist bought the Winding Beam Collection 25 years ago as her own venture, complementing her other furniture store, Mitchell’s Interiors. For her, however, doing business in Rehoboth Beach means connecting with the same people every year.

“Most people in retail in Rehoboth Beach could choose to rent out the space [rather than run a business],” she said. “We love what we do, that’s why we do it.”

Dan Slagle, executive director of Rehoboth Beach Main Street, had a similar opinion.

“Main Street, that’s all we are. We support the inner city, but we also support the residents and we support the city in various projects,” he said. “So I think it’s important as a community that we all work very well together.”

For example, Main Street funded the barriers that allowed al fresco dining during the pandemic. The push was to ensure that the businesses, which had pledged to remain family-owned and in the city, could pull through.

“Everyone was looking for ideas and everyone was trying to help each other stay in business,” Slagle said. “I know Main Street has been trying to help people get grants to stay in business. I think it was a community that really came together and worked together.”

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