story by Mary Ellen Thompson photos by John Wollwerth
No wonder Lulu Burgess, the shop ’til you drop store at 917 Bay St. E, is such a success with Nan Sutton at the helm. Nan’s boundless energy and optimism, coupled with her love of humor, are a recipe for success.
“I have a sense of humor which I inherited from my father. I love to laugh so I started selling humor. People like to laugh but sometimes they don’t know how; they can come into Lulu Burgess and laugh. Life is too hard, too serious.” Nan is referring to the selection of items she sells in the shop from books about farting to cocktail napkins that will make you need a napkin to wipe your funny tears, to bacon band-aids and air fresheners, pencil sharpeners shaped like a nose, and plastic cockroaches so you can take a taste of the South with you wherever you go.
“I opened the store on April 29, 2000. I had come back from New York on January 31 to be with my mom who was ill; on that day I met my future husband. I had already rented the space while I was in New York, and when I came to see it there was Mike Sutton, who was a contractor for the renovation, standing in my store.
“Before I left New York, I knew I needed a job when I came back to Beaufort. I wanted to be in retail. I had no experience but I was a student of merchandising.” At first the store, named after Nan’s childhood nickname, Lulu, and her mother’s maiden name, Burgess, carried gifts and home accessories, but it has moved into mostly gifts and accessories with some clothing and fabulous affordable jewelry.
“Good retail is theater. I think people want to be entertained, have fun. It’s what will save us from Amazon. Mom and pop shops offer a personal experience. If we want our downtowns to survive, we need to patronize local shops. One of the things about Lulu’s is that someone who has only $5, $10 or $15 can buy a cool gift and have it wrapped. When I was growing up in Beaufort, if you wanted to buy a cool gift for a little amount of money, you had to go to Savannah or Charleston. I want everyone to have fun. I work in the store six days a week. I’m all artistic; things like spreadsheets give me the hives.”
“We do videos on Facebook for Filmtastic Fridays; usually I do them with Nell Smith who is just hysterical. (You can see them on LuluBurgessBeaufort on Facebook if you go to videos.) I pick the products ahead of time but the videos are totally done by the seat of our pants.”
Nan is also very civic minded. A member of City Council, she sat in on council meetings for eight years when Mike was a member. “I also do public service videos. I did one about Hurricane Matthew the day after the storm hit. It was the only video out there because news crews couldn’t get into Beaufort; the Savannah and Charleston crews were busy filming their own devastation.” Nan ran for City Council last year because, “I felt like the city was going in a good direction. The election came up, two seats were available, and I decided to run. I wanted to make sure we keep moving forward because I love this town so much”
After Nan graduated from the College of Charleston, she went to work on Hilton Head. She had been involved in the theater in Charleston, and one day she received a phone call from a casting company. “I hung up on them. They called me back, and next thing, I was driving to Howard Johnson’s Charleston to meet a casting director. Sitting in the restaurant were Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan who were the producers. The director introduced me and then took me to a room and asked me to read. It turned out he was Wes Craven, who was one of the most famous horror film directors of all time. He called me the next week and offered me a part in Swamp Thing, as Swamp Thing’s sister, Linda Holland.
“After the filming, I got a letter from Wes. None of my scenes had been cut but the director said I couldn’t be Swamp Thing’s sister because he was Northern and I was Southern and didn’t sound like him, (my line was, ‘It was replicating like mad but when I said it, it came out ma-ad’) so they dubbed my voice. Swamp Thing died at the box office but has become a cult film.”
In 1984, Nan decided to go to New York City and become an actress. She studied with Uta Hagen and says, “I had the talent but not the ability to promote myself.” After a few odd jobs, Nan accepted the offer of a friend to work for Restaurant Associates, which was a private catering company exclusive to the United Nations. “I became Director of Services and managed all the private parties at the UN for eleven years. We were there to do all the diplomatic receptions and private corporate parties.”
During her years there, Nan met dignitaries and famous people such as Jane Goodall, Elizabeth Taylor, Yasser Arafat, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Yeltsin, Vaclav Havel, Bill Clinton, Madeline Albright and many others. “It was quite a heady experience,” she recalls. “The highest function was when the Secretaries Generals came to the State luncheons for the General Assembly. It was amazing, but it was very stressful, especially dealing with the famous people’s handlers. I learned a lot about people. Richard Nixon winked at me during a small luncheon. After everyone else had left, Bill Clinton stayed and talked to the waiters and service people.”
These days, when not sitting in City Council meetings, Nan revels in meeting and greeting the folks who come into her shop for gifts, browsing, or for a peek at her sense of humor.