As we celebrate a special Christmas edition of the First Thursdays Art Market, we look around and see familiar faces.

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A singer-songwriter who never found New York or Nashville necessary. A jazz musician who did his part to make a local jazz venue a nationally recognized haven for the best in the business. A jewelry designer whose other address is Brooklyn, yet who likes to be home for the holidays. An art photographer who formerly guided the financial life of a Fortune 500 corporation. A dozen visual artists who count among their number some lifetime practitioners and others who gave life to their art after moving to Hilton Head Island.

And all around us, the merchants and restaurateurs who every day bet their family fortunes and futures on their ability to serve the particular desires of both visitors and residents on what travel magazines again and again call America’s favorite vacation island. We were inspired to call it home and sharing it is how most of us get along. One result of knowing this is how much we appreciate the preference people have for “shopping local” for the holidays.

Baffling the Experts

One of our New York City favorites, Saks Fifth Avenue, had a store on Hilton Head Island for as long as most of us can remember, and today the classic Saks is represented here by their value line, Off Fifth, at an outlet mall that is, ahem, off island. The Saks journey on Hilton Head Island is instructive.

For the longest time, even the legendary Saks couldn’t quite crack the code to Hilton Head shopping. They stocked their store at Shelter Cove with resort wear, following what they’d learned in Miami and similar getaway destinations. Didn’t seem to work. Was Hilton Head Island more of a professional-and-social environment for clothing and accessories? Then let’s stock it like the Fifth Avenue store across from Rockefeller Center and next door to St. Patrick’s. Hmmm. That didn’t work, either.

What made Hilton Head shopping so distinctive that even Saks couldn’t “model” it on any of their other experience?

Clues to the Experience

The answer might be found around the unique combination of “at-ease” and “at-home” that people experience on Hilton Head Island. Among visitors and vacationers, more than 40 percent are returning. They’ve been here before, sometimes year after year for a generation or more. But even the folks coming to Hilton Head Island for just their second or third or fourth visit say they feel a certain sense of belonging. It works two ways. This lazy, luxurious, Lowcountry beauty finds a place somewhere inside our guests. Hilton Head Island makes its way into their consciousness. They take a piece home with them.

In return, visitors feel something more than welcome when they are here. They feel like part of this place. Most of the time it’s just a quiet feeling, something difficult to describe. Yet whenever they pass along some inside knowledge to another visitor, the feeling of belonging grows. It’s part of what brings so many back.

Now, with that feeling of two-way belonging, it starts to make sense that “resort wear” was not the answer for Saks. The kind of “costuming” that people practice when they go to Miami, for example, is rarely at play here. It’s more like a neighborhood, just a different one, with palm trees. Maybe that’s why the things that visitors and residents both want to see when they go Hilton Head shopping can be so similar.

The Founders Predicted

What does shift when people shop local on Hilton Head Island? A sense of freedom. The imagination and the practical judgement live much closer together here on America’s favorite island. It’s why people who never buy art at home sometimes go back with framed art photography or a painting to remind them of how it feels here. It’s why the range of colors people choose to buy and wear – while not as outlandish as resort wear – are a bit more brash and buoyant here, more animated and cheerful than what they might have chosen at home. Our friends at Palmettoes call it “fashion for fun-loving people.”

One of the things that the Sea Pines founders predicted with uncanny accuracy is how people who feel this way would like to shop. Placing The Shops at Sea Pines Center right in the middle of the Miracle Mile, they foresaw the convenience that residents would demand, and the power of attraction that would make it a gathering place for residents and visitors alike.

This blend of efficiency, value, and diversion is a rare quality, and the ultimate secret to the pleasure of shopping local – for the holidays or anytime – on Hilton Head Island. Understanding this is part of what makes the experience you’ll find among The Shops at Sea Pines Center so extraordinary.