Tom Pierce has spent more than 50 summers working at The Gay Dolphin and he definitely has the stories and shark teeth to prove it.
Pierce makes and sells shark tooth jewelry at the Ocean Boulevard retailer. He began working there at age 17 as an apprentice to Trader Bill, the store’s original shark tooth jewelry maker.
“I came to the beach with my best friend in college to chase women,” Pierce said with a laugh. “After I graduated from Clemson, I came to the beach and I never left.”
Trader Bill made his first shark tooth necklace in the late 1950s with a tooth Buz Plyler, The Gay Dolphin’s current owner, had found on the beach.
“He started out making sweetheart pins on the fair circuit,” Plyler said of Trader Bill. “I brought him that tooth to wrap for a necklace and gave it to the pitchman at the [Gay Dolphin] amusement park, and it brought people into the store. We sold a whole lot of shark tooth jewelry after that.”
Pierce took over the business upon the passing of Bill and his wife and has been running it ever since. He rents out his booth inside The Gay Dolphin.
Pierce creates jewelry from teeth he’s found or purchased, but he can also craft a custom piece out of a tooth you find during your Myrtle Beach vacation.
“Up until the ‘Jaws’ movie came out, we were the only people making shark’s tooth jewelry,” Pierce said.
Pierce’s pieces range in price from souvenir gifts to gold-plated keepsakes. He normally wears a necklace featuring a fresh great white tooth with a solid gold cap.
Pierce has a variety of rare teeth and fossils on display in his booth, and he’s glad to tell you the stories and history behind him. He was recently interviewed for a National Geographic documentary about sharks and has been contacted by the Smithsonian Institute to help identify fossils in the past.
Pierce calls his booth “my own little corner of the world.”
“When I was a kid, my grandparents used to say, ‘I ain’t never seen a kid who loves the beach as much as you.’ I was destined to live here,” he said.
Pierce’s favorite part of working at The Gay Dolphin is getting to meet all the customers and seeing their beach treasures.
“I’ve watched so many kids grow up. This is year 51 for me. I get to see what everybody else is finding,” he said.
Pierce tells all his customer that a portion of all proceeds from shark tooth jewelry go towards “feeding Captain Tucker,” the jeweler’s beloved pet.
“He’s the biggest cat you’ve ever seen,” he said, showing off a few photos of the animal. “The kids always ask me about Captain Tucker.”
Whether you remember searching for seashells with your sister, posing with the yeti for a Facebook picture or trying to find your name on the license plate wall, The Gay Dolphin Gift Cove is a nostalgic spot for Myrtle Beach visitors of all ages.
The Gay Dolphin, which celebrates 75 years of business next year, is a must-see for Grand Strand tourists.
The store covers roughly 30,000 square feet, and customers must travel up and down staircases and weave around large pieces of merchandise in order to see every corner of the place. It’s not unlike a maze. In fact, the shop sells a t-shirt that reads, “I Got Lost in the Gay Dolphin,” which is probably a true statement for many visitors.
“It’s one of our best sellers,” said Plyler, whose family opened the store in 1946.
“We sell over 1,000 of those shirts every year. So many people get lost in here,” office manager Michelle Kerscher said with a laugh.
Another favorite item is the customized mini blue South Carolina license plate tags that line a large wall inside the store. You may recognize the shiny display from Dan + Shay’s “19 You & Me” music video, which was filmed along the Grand Strand. Whether you’re shopping for Donita, Marguerite or Olaf, the personalized possibilities are seemingly endless.
Some of the store’s other popular items include jewelry, seashells and Christmas ornaments. Simply Southern merchandise remains on the best-seller list, as do nautical items and fairies and dragons.
Silly socks featuring Zoltar, Mr. Rogers and Bob Ross are a hit with patrons of all ages. Puppie Love t-shirts, especially the South Carolina-centric “Howl at the Moon” design, are a new addition that customers are enjoying. A portion of proceeds from sales goes to animal rescue centers.
The store continues to produce a great deal of its own merchandise, and items bearing the Gay Dolphin name and logo are still top sellers.
“You can’t find it in other stores,” Kerscher said.
The Gay Dolphin tries to stock as much American-made merchandise as possible, including sand dollars from Kay’s Kreations and toffee from Canipe Candy Citchen.
“We have at least 100 American-made products in the store,” Kerscher said.
The store has face masks and hand sanitizer for sale and has been committed to keeping the store clean and sanitized for a safe customer experience.
Plyler said he aims to make his store kid-friendly, stocking colorful, fun items. He wants a trip to the Gay Dolphin to be memorable.
“It’s my thinking that if they have a good time here when they’re 5, 10, 15, 25, 40…they’ll come back with their families,” he said. “We’ve had a wonderful relationship with our customers. It’s neat to be a part of people’s vacations their whole lives.”
Many years ago, The Gay Dolphin was home to an amusement park, a mini golf course, a donut shop, a grocery store, a rifle range and even Myrtle Beach’s first aquarium. The first gift shop the Plyler Family opened was called Shell Craft and featured handmade items. 74 years later, The Gay Dolphin is one of the largest gift shops on the east coast. As Myrtle Beach’s landscape changes, The Gay Dolphin remains a fun, free, family-owned attraction.
“As this area changes, people want to have part of Myrtle Beach that remains the same year after year,” Kerscher said. “We do that.”
Kerscher and Plyler think of the store as not just a retailer, but an attraction as well.
“We aim to entertain our customers,” Plyler said.
There are a lot of photo opportunities throughout the store, marked with bright blue “#selfiespot” labels.
Customers are encouraged to have fun and stop for photos.
“We just ask that you tag them with #gaydolphin so we can see them,” Kerscher said.
New this year is the giant llama, found next to the big Yeti in the basement. The employees jokingly refer to this as the “Alpaca-lypse” display.
The front window facing Ocean Boulevard is home to a detailed velociraptor. Definitely check out the hammerhead shark selfie spot near the t-shirt racks.
The store still carries a selection of vintage items, from postcards to bookmarks.
“We just found another box of vintage postcards in our warehouse,” Kerscher said.
There truly is something for everybody inside the store.
“It’s rewarding to appeal to so many different kinds of people,” the owner said.
Many shoppers have returned year after year throughout their lives, bringing back their children and now their grandchildren.
“We’re very sentimental to some of these people,” Kerscher said. “We have people call to make sure we’re still open.”
The Gay Dolphin is located at 916 N. Ocean Blvd. in Myrtle Beach.The store is open from 9:30 a.m. until midnight now through Labor Day.
Call 843-448-6550 or visit gaydolphin.com to learn more.