Current owner, Justin “Buz” Plyler, has been working at the Gay Dolphin Cove since he was eight years old. It is the family business after all. While some family empires are built on oil or manufacturing, the Plylers built theirs on souvenirs. The Gay Dolphin Cove isn’t just any souvenir shop, though, that would be like calling the Nile just a river. This nearly 80-year-old establishment bills itself as the nation’s largest gift shop, and at 35,000 square feet, with nearly 70,000 items (at least as of 2011), it would be hard to argue.
The shop first sprang to life in 1946 when Buz’s parents, Justin and Elise opened a little gift shop. They wanted a “whimsical nautical name” for the store, Plyler told the Sun-News in 2001. And the Gay Dolphin was born. Though Hurricane Hazel, a Category 4 storm that swept through the state in 1954, destroyed the original store, the Plylers rebuilt and reopened. The new store started with just three sections, eventually ending at a six-story glass tower— at one point, the tallest building in the city. But it’s just as true for knick-knack stores as it is for knick-knacks— they just keep growing.
The gift shop eventually added on: a golf course, three inns, a monkey house, a small amusement park, and an aquarium, among other attractions. Today, the gift shop contains 50 “coves,” specialty areas where shoppers can find the perfect gift for just about any kind of person. There’s the shell cove, full of decorative, shell-adorned items like picture frames and lamps (for the minimalist, there’s also just plain shells). There’s the Elvis cove, an attraction the Charlotte Observer called “a clearinghouse of Elvis memorabilia and kitsch.” Plyler thinks of this section as a place where fans of the king can commune, telling the paper, “It’s like people are striving to find the next connection to his existence.” There are also six selfie stations deep within the labyrinthine shop.
After all these years, Plyler knows that he can’t work at the Gay Dolphin forever, but for now he’s concentrating on keeping his family’s—and a lot of others’—tradition alive. As one visitor told the Sun-News, “It’s just something that’s here and it’s been here. You don’t visit Ocean Boulevard without going to The Gay Dolphin.”
Know Before You Go
Hours change seasonally, Summer hours 9:30 a.m. – Midnight Shoulder season hours 9:30 a.m. – 11:00 p.m. Winter Hours 9:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.