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Wary but ready to reopen: With ‘nonessentials’ closed until May 18, owners anticipate next steps

  • Michael Marvin, co-owner of Chameleons Salon in Northampton, talks about Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement to extend the closures of nonessential businesses until May 18. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michael Marvin, co-owner of Chameleons Salon in Northampton, talks about Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement to extend closures of nonessential businesses until May 18. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michael Marvin, co-owner of Chameleons Salon in Northampton, talks about Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement to extend closures of nonessential businesses until May 18. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A pandemic-themed card made by Big Wheel Press in Easthampton is based on the Talking Heads song “Life During Wartime.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • William Muller, who owns Guild Art Center in Northampton, attaches a face mask to a cap that is similar to the one he is wearing while working at Big Wheel Press in Easthampton, another business he owns. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • William Muller stands amid cards and art supplies at his business, Big Wheel Press in Easthampton. He also owns Guild Art Center in Northampton. He is offering art supplies for pickup outside Big Wheel Press. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • William Muller stands amid cards and art supplies at his business, Big Wheel Press in Easthampton. He also owns Guild Art Center in Northampton. He is offering art supplies for pickup outside Big Wheel Press. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • William Muller holds a pandemic-themed card based on the Talking Heads song “Life During Wartime” made at his business, Big Wheel Press in Easthampton. He also owns Guild Art Center in Northampton. He is offering art supplies for pickup outside Big Wheel Press. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • William Muller, who owns Guild Art Center in Northampton, attaches a face mask to a cap that is similar to the one he is wearing while working at Big Wheel Press in Easthampton, another business he owns. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Strada shoes owner Anna Bowen helps a customer in the downtown Northampton space her business shares with Essentials on Friday, March 1, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 5/1/2020 2:51:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Many local business owners were not surprised when Gov. Charlie Baker announced this week that nonessential businesses will remain closed until May 18, though they say they are feeling financial strain and wondering what opening up again will look like.

The sign on Anna Bowen’s Main Street storefront reads “Strada & Essentials,” for the co-retail space that is home to Strada Shoes and Essentials stationery and gift shop, but it’s one such business considered nonessential by the state and therefore closed.

“I’m all on the side of the abundance of caution,” said Bowen, the owner of Strada Shoes, about the further two-week delay in reopening. “I’d rather be cautious now rather than having to shut down again later.

“The real cost is people’s health,” she added. 

Bowen has put her shop’s inventory online, and she now sells shoes through home deliveries, dropping off several pairs for customers to try on and later coming back for those that don’t fit. “It’s a lot of work,” she said. 

Even when the shoe store eventually reopens, Bowen is worried business will be slow.​​​​​ William Muller, owner of Guild Art Supply, also on Main Street, echoed her concerns — it will take a long time for downtown to fully rebound, he said.

“I don’t think Northampton is going to open up to what it was for at least two or three years,” Muller said.

The art store has been selling a few hundred dollars worth of doorstep deliveries each week. 

“Nothing to keep us in business,” Muller said, “but enough to keep people happy.”

Muller also owns Big Wheel Press, a letterpress studio in Easthampton, and hopes to see federal support for small businesses expanded. “We need to really think about the third, fourth and fifth economic package that goes out there,” he said. “The biggest companies that can get financing should not be applying for these loans.”

Some loans in the first round of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) went to larger, publicly traded companies, such as Potbelly Sandwich Shop and Shake Shack, both of which have since announced they would return the millions of dollars in loans. Muller said he has applied for the second round of PPP funding. 

But May 18 is still too early to reopen businesses, he said.

“I think it was too conservative, way too conservative,” he said of the governor’s announcement. “Someone should just bite the bullet and say, ‘Guess what folks? We are not opening up until there are zero deaths.’”

‘Mixed feelings’

In Easthampton, Boni Johnson co-owns Wedge Works Art & Home on Cottage Street with her husband, Matthew Johnson.

The business sells furniture made by Matthew — as well as other local and regional products such as clothing, pottery and jewelry — and like many others was forced to temporarily close.

“It was heartbreaking, and I’m sad,” said Bonnie, who noted that Wedge Works also has lost significant income due to the cancellation of craft shows. “It’s really devastating to have your business shut down.”

At the same time, she said, it’s hard to wrap her head around what reopening safely would look like.

“I think we all feel that way,” she said. “We’re all feeling mixed feelings.”

The business has been able to sell some wares online since the shutdown, Bonnie said, but Wedge Works hasn’t yet received any government aid; the Johnsons applied for a small business loan. 

Although the shop in Easthampton is only about two years old, Bonnie said she and her husband started the business almost 30 years ago. As for how they will conduct business after reopening, she said they will take their cue from the city’s Health Department.

“We’re going to try everything to stay in business,” she said. Restaurants are also feeling the strain. Although carry out and delivery is considered essential under the governor’s order, sit-down service is not.

“It’s been a tough time for everybody,” said Phil Pallante, who with his wife, Sunia Hood, co-owns La Veracruzana, which has locations in Amherst, Easthampton and Northampton. “Every day’s a challenge.”

La Veracruzana has had to furlough some employees during the shutdown, Pallante said. He doesn’t think business will go back to normal when they’re allowed to have sit-down dinners again, as he doesn’t know what restaurant capacity will be allowed and believes that some people will not want to eat out.

“It’s going to be different,” Pallante said.

Michael Lavalle, who owns the Brass Cat, made the decision to close his bar shortly before the governor issued his initial order banning sit-down dining in bars and restaurants.

“I didn’t want to feel that we were a source” of the virus, said Lavalle of his reasoning.

He said he wasn’t surprised at all that the governor had extended the nonessential business closures. He added that he has received PPP funding, which he will use for payroll when he hires back his employees and that he also has applied for a loan from the Small Business Administration.

Waiting it out

Jena Sujat has owned Pinch, an artisan gallery on Main Street in Northampton, for 15 years. “It feels way too premature to open when the cases are surging — despite the fact that I wish I could reopen in whatever capacity that looks like,” Sujat said.

The business has done some deliveries and online sales, “but the online sales are a tiny, tiny fraction of the business that we typically do,” she said. “It’s very clear that our shop is dependent on visitors.”

Sujat’s landlord has temporarily reduced her rent, and “I was lucky to get in on the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program,” she said, “which is the big loan that we all hope will be a forgivable grant.”

Bowen, of Strada Shoes, recently learned she will also be receiving funding from the program. 

Michael Marvin, co-owner of Chameleons Salon on Conz Street, wasn’t as lucky with the Paycheck Protection Program. “We were shut out of the first wave because the money ran out so quickly,” he said.

When the salon opens its doors again, business will likely be slow, he said. “As we all do reopen,” he said, “the truth is that we’re not going back to the same volume of work.”

He is figuring out how to make people feel comfortable when the salon reopens, such as only allowing a few customers at a time. “Part of our concern is that there is going to be a number of people who still feel compelled to stay home — and I think that is legitimate,” he said.

Regarding the governor’s extension of the shutdown, Brian Lepine, who owns Fitness Fusion gym in Easthampton, said he expected as much. “I didn’t think there was any chance we’d be back up and running by May 4,” he said.

Lepine is the gym’s sole employee, though he does employ independent contractors, and he has been able to collect unemployment. He’s still paying full rent for his gym, which he has owned for more than five years.

Lepine credits the customers who chose to keep their gym memberships during the shutdown with keeping his business afloat.

“That is the only difference maker, honestly,” he said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com. Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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