Tourists wiggled around the gray-haired, bearded man struggling with a jammed price gun.
His tall frame perched on a set of short steps, the Ocean Boulevard icon fumbled with the contrary contraption.
“Arghhh. It’s new. New and it doesn’t work. I can fix it,” he said, looking over the top of his reading glasses with a sly, slightly tilted smile easing across his face.
Justin “Buz” Plyler knows a thing or two million about getting the job done.
Like a needy older sibling, the Gay Dolphin has kept Plyler buzzing since he was child earning him the energetic nickname.
“Nobody in their right mind would be in this business,” he said. “This is how I grew up. To begin with, Myrtle Beach was a resort for mill workers and they were making a quarter an hour. We had to find things cheap enough to sell to them and it continues to be a big effort. We know that you’re going to be much more successful if you have less expensive product.”
The products range from authentic alligator feet back scratchers, seashell chandeliers, tide clocks, baby sharks in jars, Elvis Presley and Marylin Monroe framed portraits, a llama statue, sterling silver earrings, stickers of happy avocados, Bob Ross socks, shower caps for people with long hair, all-natural spray to turn a burn into a tan, Christmas ornaments made in Virginia, North Carolina-made candles, high-end nautical themed decorations for beach houses to shark teeth necklaces.
Plyler had just spent a few hours in the store’s basement office talking about his family business. The same office his father worked in with the same wood paneled walls. The same office his parents shared within earshot of the stock room he filled and organized as a younger man.
His parents, Justin and Eloise Plyler, started the business in 1946 several years before the younger Plyler was born. Minus the short closure after Hurricane Hazel’s destruction in 1954, the store has been open for 75 years in the same footprint off Ocean Boulevard.
The gift shop and Plyler are older than the 64 years Myrtle Beach has been a bonafide city. All of their histories are intertwined.
The original Plyler family gift shop opened two years before the Myrtle Beach Pavilion and Amusement Park, which closed in 2006.
While many business owners on the boulevard feared the pavilion absence would cause a devastating ripple leaving storefronts as empty as pockets, Plyler’s wife Michelle Plyler said the Gay Dolphin has marked an increase in business every year since except last year.
Plyler said this year is shaping up to be 40% better than the best year they’ve ever had.
But the boulevard wasn’t always paved with rainbows and deposit slips. The family has dealt with life, death and hurricanes.
Hazel was the only hurricane that sent the Plylers away from their shop and home. And then, he said, it was in the middle of night when “the first 55-gallon drum went through the wall.”
They didn’t go far, Michelle Plyler laughed, pointing to where an old school had once stood a few blocks from the ocean.
“His mother said the most heart-breaking thing was the next day: everything from the store was on the beach and people were just picking it up,” she said. “That’s when they made a lot of things. And she said, ‘What we worked so hard for, people are just walking away with.’”
Back then, as now, Plyler said the employees make a lot of the stuff sold in the store, including post cards, stickers, T-shirts and 3,500 small 3-inch by 6-inch blue license plates with names.
A point of pride, Plyler said, every year new names are added to license plates as a few names that have gone out of style are retired. Up until 2006, if a person couldn’t find their name on a license plate they got a free trip to the top of the glass tower while others had to pay $1 for the trip. The climb to the tower top stopped in 2006.
But, as longtime employee Cora Grice showed a customer, the tower is still open for climbing a few stories up until the merchandise floors end.
The store, located at 916 South Ocean Blvd., is about 30,000 square feet divided into eight offset levels splitting the 50 gift coves with separate themes.
Originally the store was called Shell Craft, a 10-feet by 20-feet stand in the Gay Dolphin Park amusement park next door. The family lived next to the store.
Plyler said his father grabbed pieces of the original wooden store off the beach after Hazel and began rebuilding.
“We came back and dad had picked up the lumber off the beach that had been destroyed,” he said. “He cut off the broken ends and we rebuilt the store from a concrete block that he picked up off the beach — partially. We didn’t have enough to do the whole building with. He was typical of the Depression-era generation. They used what they had and it gave us the ability to get a start. We had salesmen that had sold us stuff give us all their samples. So we got started, and in a lot of cases, we had one of each thing that a company might sell.”
Plyler pointed out his father rebuilt the store without interior structural supports such as columns. He said his father used steel cables similar to the way bridges are built.
“I don’t know of anybody else that did that in the United States. I’ve never run across it,” he smiled.
The structure isn’t the only unique thing about the Gay Dolphin.
The nostalgia magnet pulls in all ages across generations at the same time.
“They all have smiles on their faces, all of them, all ages,” Plyler said. “The teenagers, the grandmothers, at the same time. The teenagers are smiling. It’s really something.”
The secret sauce, the couple agreed, is a fine balance of keeping some merchandise the same while constantly updating stuff to meet trends.
One example of meeting the customers’ needs was born of weary customers trying to identify shells found on the beach and the lack of resources. So Plyler produced a book to identify shells and the book has consistently been a bestseller.
And, he said, for years he subscribed to 40 magazines specifically to look at the advertisements showing what was trendy to young people, middle age people and the elderly. He’d take what he’d learned from ads in such magazines as Good Housekeeping or motorcycle magazines to make a shopping list when he’d go to trade shows.
Plyler has always had a prime spot to watch the city change and grow.
As an 8-year-old he manned the family’s carpet golf, helped out at the amusement park, made sure the delivery trucks unloaded the right stuff and watched as tourists lingered around for photos with a gorilla and alligator.
He’d eyeballed a building across the boulevard from his family’s business after a tragedy.
The building, which he now leases to Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, had been owned by two men. Plyler said one of the owners shot the other, hauled the body to North Carolina, stuffed the body in a truck and weighted it down with chains before dumping it in a lake.
“I guess it bobbled up to the top,” he said. “The bank had it for about 18 months.”
He said the bank originally offered the building to his father but the father deferred to the son.
“I was 19 and saved everything I’d made since I was eight. So, I bought it,” he said of the building that still has the retro sign of three dolphins balancing balls on their noses.
There’s other property dotting the boulevard the Plylers lease, but the centerpiece is the Gay Dolphin.
It’s the enigmatic tug of history, Michelle Plyler said, that keeps folks coming to the Gay Dolphin.
“They’ve come here their whole life and they want some piece of old Myrtle Beach,” she said. “They want to feel like they did when they were a kid. They want to be able go places they did and this is one of the few places that looks mostly the same, has some of the same items. It’s been here in the same location with the same owners, family owned, since they can remember.
“Everything in Myrtle Beach has changed a lot. There’s a few businesses down here that have stayed the same and this is one of them. So, people come back.”
The Gay Dolphin answers that nostalgia tug doubling as a free attraction.
“They come here for the insane variety, the ability to see things they’ve never seen before,” Plyler said of watching generations come into the store his parents conceived before him. “It’s really remarkable that we’re able to appeal to different generations and to so many different lifestyles.”
Samantha Griboy recently came to Myrtle Beach for the first time with her family. Griboy said she had never seen a gift shop like the Gay Dolphin and was particularly impressed with their nautical merchandise.
“I think it’s really cute,” Griboy said. “There’s a lot in it and I think it’s unique.”
Ever-present with the sanitizer, Grice wipes down a handrail as customers pass. She’s been keeping the store clean since she’d dyed her hair blue just as the Gay Dolphin faced a mandatory closure for three weeks in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. She, like the other employees were kept on with full-time pay reinforcing the family-like working environment and long-standing reputation.
Grice laughs as a child bumps her clutching a dye-cast tractor he’d picked up in the toy cove. She nodded watching him try to get his mother’s attention away from the T-shirts.
Plyler said shirts have always been a big seller, but now 25 of the 100 top sellers have the name Gay Dolphin on them.
And that Gay Dolphin name, Plyler smiles, came from his father because back in the day the beach was less crowded and there were dolphins that used to play off shore.
Then there’s the customers Plyler didn’t expect to be blending in with tourists.
“We never used to have any local business,” he said. “Now the Yankees have moved down here and they’re decorating their homes. They like the theming of the beach. And, it’s the right price point. And we like them. We have a good relationship with them.”