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A knickknack empire; Gay Dolphin owner rides tides of decades


Not "Hello." Not "Hi, how are you?"

Buz Plyler, described generally as friendly but down to business, answers his cell phone with a commanding "Yes."

Plyler, owner and operator of Myrtle Beach's largest gift shop, The Gay Dolphin, and a serial entrepreneur, is too busy with his business for almost everything else, he said.

And the businesses have been many since Plyler, 62, began working for his parents when he was 8 years old. Plyler helped his parents run a wildlife show and amusement park rides starting in the '50s and gradually took on responsibility for buying all merchandise sold at The Gay Dolphin on Ocean Boulevard, he said.

Plyler also leases property that he's acquired up and down the Grand Strand, including land he rents to Ripley Entertainment on Ocean Boulevard. His other ventures have included do-it-yourself music video booths at major theme parks across the U.S., experimentation with 3-D theater technology and most recently a company that is in talks to put passport photo kiosks in pharmacies around the world.

But Plyler continues to dedicate most of his waking hours to The Gay Dolphin shop that he took over from his parents, he said. The shop,founded in 1946, has long been known for staying open through the offseason when many other Boulevard businesses close. This year is no exception.

To just say Plyler operates The Gay Dolphin is an understatement, said Chris Walker, who owns and operates an ice cream parlor, haunted house and old timey photo shop on the Boulevard.

"He's like the dean of the business owners down here. He's the veteran we all look up to," said Walker, who does not lease his properties from Plyler. "Him and his father and his mother, they're all icons down here."

The Gay Dolphin

Norman Barnes of Spartanburg browsed the toy section of The Gay Dolphin on a Friday in February while carrying a small souvenir license plate. Barnes, who first came to The Gay Dolphin as a child more than 25 years ago, summed up what several customers said about the store.

"There's so much stuff. It's the only place I can find my daughter's name on anything," he said, holding up the license plate that says "Piper."

The store's average inventory is 70,000 items, Plyler said.

Plyler spends most of his time filling the shop's narrow snaking aisles of gifts and knickknacks, he said. The mishmash of items is separated into myriad sections - safari, lighthouse, sharks and chess sets to name a few - on the eight levels of the store connected by short sets of stairs.

Plyler's white beard gives him a striking resemblance to Ernest Hemingway, making it seem natural that he'd be surrounded by mostly nautical knickknacks

On the same Friday when Barnes shopped, Plyler strode into his storage room to take stock of a shipment of resin knickknacks with his silky terrier, Lucky, close behind. The small dog, which belonged to his wife, who died last year, follows Plyler around the shop as he works, he said.

This shipment Plyler bought from a company that had gone bankrupt, a practice he's taken up to keep costs down, he said. He tries to keep up with trends when buying merchandise, he said while opening a box of geckos holding small picture frames.

"It's a trend that's a little past its prime, but the gecko has stayed successful since the [Geico] commercials have stayed so successful," he said. "People use television to make a lot of their buying decisions in the lower middle class [who] I sell to."

Apart from changing merchandise trends, Plyler said he has tried to retain the shop's original conditions as much as possible.

It's a formula that works, so there's no reason to change it, Walker said.

"It's just something that's here and it's been here. You don't visit Ocean Boulevard without going to The Gay Dolphin," Walker said. "It's not just a store. It's more like an amusement park."

A prodigy is born

A brief elevator ride from inside of The Gay Dolphin brings Plyler to his '70s-style apartment overlooking the ocean. Christmas wreaths and red decorations still hang from Christmas, another sign of how busy Plyler is.

He inherited the apartment from his parents, who lived above the store. The Gay Dolphin had been in operation for three years when Plyler was born in 1949 to Justin and Eloise Plyler in a Myrtle Beach guesthouse owned by his family.

Plyler Park at the corner of Ocean Boulevard and Mr. Joe White Avenue is named for Justin Plyler, founder of The Gay Dolphin.

The shop in its current form began to be built after Hurricane Hazel in 1954, which wiped out the original store and left a hole in the ground that became the basement. The store was built in three sections, starting closest to the beach, and ending with the section that includes the iconic six-story glass tower.

Buz Plyler, whose given name is Justin after his father, earned his nickname for his high level of energy. He began buying products for the shop as a child, starting with the jobs his father didn't want to do.

"The shell trucks would come to the front of the store. ... They had truckloads of seashells and it was hot as hell and he hated to go in there and pick them out. And he had better things to do," Plyler said. "Any child can see if a shell is clean, if it's pretty, if it will sell and if it's cheap. ... It turned out that I was good at it. It turned out I was an honest to God prodigy."

As he bought more merchandise for the store, Plyler would go to trade shows with his parents, he said. Children at the show were ignored by salesmen, so he would hang out near the booths they bought merchandise from, he said.

"You could always tell when a hitter would come in, a big buyer, because all the salesman would get excited and they would all run over to him," Plyler said. "They offer him a particular item at a very low price. And I would listen in and write down the quantity that the guy bought and the price that he bought it at."

Plyler would return to the same salesman later and ask for the same prices as the major buyers, which he wouldn't otherwise be offered, he said.

Plyler, who wears a calculator watch, has continued to do all the buying and pricing for the store and has worked with some of the same distributors for up to 50 years, he said.

The crash

Plyler took over managing for his parents full-time, and improvements in technology made it easier to keep in contact with distant suppliers. The advent of the cell phone particularly made Plyler more productive, he said. But the same device he praises almost killed him.

On a rainy night in mid-March 2004, Plyler drove down U.S. 17 near Surfside Beach in a Chevrolet Tahoe talking on his cell phone. His other cell phone rang and he bent over to pick it up off the floor, he said. When he looked up, he was going off the road toward the ditch.

He was thrown through the windshield as the car rolled, and he lay in the middle of the road on the opposite side of the ditch, he said.

"I broke all my ribs. I took a vicious beating," Plyler said.

A man following behind him got out of his car and waded through the ditch, said Plyler, who remained conscious in the immediate aftermath. The man picked up one of Plyler's phones, which was still connected to a person at the other end, he said.

"They told him who I was and he said, 'Well, he don't look so good,'" said Plyler, laughing at that part of the story.

His organs had shifted to the other side of his body and his diaphragm had been torn, among other injuries.

"He was dead, he wasn't supposed to live," said Perry Shelley, a college friend of Plyler's who went to see him the day after the wreck at the Medical University of South Carolina hospital.

Plyler survived a risky surgery and remained in the hospital for a month before going to a rehab facility for another month. They wanted him to stay longer, but Plyler said he had had enough and left.

He returned to Myrtle Beach and was back at The Gay Dolphin working again in weeks, he said, unexpectedly making a full recovery.

The future

Plyler had once considered closing the shop to spend more time with his ailing wife and mother. But his mother died two years ago followed by his wife last year, he said.

The Gay Dolphin stays open year-round and will continue to, so that the staff is financially stable, even though he loses money in the offseason, Plyler said.

"Buz is a great guy, he's like family," said Gail Barton, who has worked there since 1979. Many of the employees have worked there for decades.

The shop is facing difficult times as global economics shift, Plyler said.

The decreasing value of the dollar makes it cost more for the store to buy goods that are often made in developing countries like China, Plyler said. The price of raw materials is also rising, further driving up the price of the finished goods, he said.

Plyler buys from suppliers who are going bankrupt to amass inventory before prices rise further, he said. He's also considering hocking his top-selling items, such as Gay Dolphin T-shirts, online, he said.

Despite all the intense hours and pressure, Plyler said running the store is rewarding.

"This has so much sentimental appeal, it really has been a surprise," Plyler said. "There aren't many things in life where everybody who comes in gives you a pat on the back and is glad that the business is there and glad they are able to return to something that's been a positive thing in their life. And that is the case with the store."

Somewhat of a workaholic, he'd find a way to work full-time doing charity even if he retired, he said.

Plyler, who says he rarely makes long-term plans, said he doesn't know who would take over the store. His two sons have moved out of Myrtle Beach, but one of them might return to take over the family business, he said.

Walker predicts that as long as Plyler wants to keep The Gay Dolphin open, it will continue to succeed.

"I think so as long as Buz has the energy - as long as Buz has the buzz - it will do well," Walker said.