Signs Of Our Small Business Crisis

Signs Of Our Small Business Crisis

Business evaporated when customers began working from home. Then came the mandated closures (critically important and much needed). Retail small business owners shut their doors and, seemingly all following the same communal instinct, posted signs in their windows announcing, explaining, and sometimes apologizing for being closed. In some fortunate cases those signs announced “Open!” and implored passersby to patronize their business.

Did we really need every shop and cafe to explain why they were closed or apologize for reduced hours and call-ahead orders only? Given the universality of the Coronavirus experience, don’t we all intuitively understand the deal? Maybe. But I’ve come to think that most small businesses just couldn’t help but communicate and share what they were experiencing with their community. That’s because small business owners are, by nature, community builders. They hire staff that become teams that grow into extended family. They cultivate customers who become loyalists then grow into friends. And after investing in their own business they often can’t help investing in their community: donations to local non-profits, sponsorships of neighborhood festivals, countless hours volunteering on the board of their local Main Streets organization.

So when this disaster hit, small business owners – and many times their staff – did what comes natural. They connected with their community to share what was happening and how they were responding. This happened on websites and Instagram of course, but it also happened in the sometimes highly personal messages posted in storefront windows.

This all finally hit home for me just last week while I was out for an afternoon mind-clearing run in my neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. I’d seen these signs from afar as I drove to the grocery store a few times, but without much reason to walk down the main business district corridor of Centre Street lately, I hadn’t fully absorbed the content of these signs. Then I passed the 760-780 block of Centre Street.

This short block across from “the monument” has always struck me as special. It’s just a touch separated from the core cluster of businesses a block or so up Centre (think, the node where City Feed and JP Licks are), and has its own sort of identity in the neighborhood. Several of the businesses even coordinate the designs of the flower planters that sit outside their doors.

The stretch of one-story buildings is also a perfect slice of the idyllic neighborhood retail economy we often long for. In a retail environment that has left so many local businesses districts shrunk down to only restaurants and an occasional service business, JP has held on to a strong diversity of retailers.

The 760-780 block of Centre Street in Jamaica Plain
The 760-780 block of Centre Street in Jamaica Plain

The 760-780 block of Centre Street is a perfect microcosm of that increasingly unique business mix strength:

  • REPS JP is a small boutique fitness studio with positive energy you can feel and hear each time you pass by.
  • Soup Shack JP is a killer quick-order ramen spot, but also be sure to try to Koi Soi.
  • American Dry Cleaner is my go-to dry cleaner – fast, dependable, affordable.
  • JP House of Pizza is a tried and true neighborhood slice shop.
  • AAA Appliances is an independently-owned home appliance showroom, stainless steel refrigerators and ovens gleaming in the window.
  • Espresso Yourself is a cozy cafe with solid sandwiches.
  • Salmagundi is a quirky hat shop (that’s right, a quirky hat shop).
  • VeeVee is a husband & wife-owned restaurant that my wife and I love for an as-local-as possible date night.
  • Station8Salon is a cool boutique-y mens and women’s salon.

When I stopped my run to take in the impacts of this crisis on this favorite retail block of mine all the businesses looked empty and closed. It was only through the signs in the windows that I was truly able to evaluate how each of these businesses is managing or coping. Some signs were hand-written in large marker. Others typed on letterhead. Some explicatory, others instructive. All were – are – resolute.

In deeply personal terms, the owners of VeeVee and Station8Salon described the desire to protect the health of customers and staff when deciding to close; VeeVee shared their efforts to apply for loans and grants. Both expressed a commitment to serving customers upon reopening. Salmagundi encouraged folks to buy gift cards and shop online to support the on-going operations of the business. Espresso Yourself displayed robust operating hours and described how to order for take-out and delivery. AAA Appliance warned customers not to enter the store, describing “phone orders only.” Both JP House of Pizza and American Dry Cleaner kept it simple: “OPEN!” written in bold colors. Soup Shack directed folks to online ordering apps for take-out and delivery. REPS’ letter to customers was titled, “It’s Not ‘Good-Bye,’ it’s ‘See You Soon!’ ”

It turns out these signs are, indeed, helpful in understanding what to make of this all.

They are also helpful in remembering that our neighborhood businesses are run by community builders of all types: those who bring people together, encourage us to stay strong, offer their help with “essential” tasks, and critically, those who remind us that when this is all over they’ll welcome us back in with open arms.

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