The Covid-19 pandemic changed everyone’s lives, but it had an especially profound effect on the lives of small business owners.
A Typical, Hectic Day
As some may expect, small business owners were receiving phone call after phone call, whether a customer was placing an order for pick up, delivery, or just calling to know what the protocol was for making a purchase. It was important for owners to make sure they were keeping their customers happy and many owners expressed pride in the fact that they felt people could rely on them for necessities. Dicara’s Deli, a local family owned business, was hit with a wave of new customers when the world entered crisis. Jill Dicara, owner of Dicara’s said, “I felt proud that I was helping people and people felt safe and comfortable coming into the deli.” The clean, organized, and friendly environment of Dicaras allowed customers to know their safety was a top priority for employees.
Other business owners such as Diane Monahan from Pamplemousse, and Liz Whitelam from Whitelam Books expressed that due to this high demand, they were busier than ever. Whitelam said, ”Those two months were probably the most exhausting two months of my entire life.” From phone calls, to shipments, to having limited staff in the stores, it was a stressful and frustrating time for these owners. Dicara faced a similar challenge. “I worked the most I’ve ever worked since the deli opened. I was there everyday till close 6 days a week with everyone.” The whole world was experiencing a pandemic for the first time. It was new and unknown for all, resulting in not only business owners being confused, but also the banks they were calling and the customers that were reaching out to them. Everyone was confused, and it continues to be a learning experience.
Advantage or Disadvantage?
At the height of the pandemic, and still continuing to this day, there was a “support small business” movement. Prior to Covid-19, I never really thought about the difference between small and big businesses, and the different hardships that small businesses face due to not being a well-known chain. When I first heard about this movement, I did some research and devoted myself to begin buying from small businesses when I could.
In Reading, there is a strong sense of community. The town has supported small businesses and gone out of their way to make sure the people of the community are aware that if they want a lively center, they have to eat, shop, and go there. This sense of community has shown through in the pandemic. Whitelam stated, “Reading as a community, for a very long time, already had the ethos of trying to support small businesses. All of the messaging during the pandemic definitely underscored that concept that was already very much in play here. It was absolutely helpful and continues to be helpful for sure.”
Not only was it beneficial then, but continues to be in the present day. Amy Collins from GoodHearts, a children’s clothing store, said, “We’ve had a very strong year this year, and I think it’s because people learned they didn’t have to go to a mall, that they could come into their Main Street stores and get in and out without a whole lot of hassle.”
Peter Simms from Simms Jewelers shared an interesting point that the reason he felt he was at an advantage was because of the type of store he owns. Being a jewelry store, he experienced an increase in customers because he was receiving the business that would usually go to vacation gifts. Compared to the other businesses, this is a sole experience because he owns a jewelry store which tends to sell more gifts for occasions, whereas the other stores are more regular customers.
On the other hand, some owners feel that the effects of the small business movement have worn off and now they only see their regulars again. Dicara’s Deli experienced a wave of new customers, but now those people are not seen in the store. They went back to their old ways, so although the movement may have benefited them then, the impact did not carry over.
This sense of ethos also carried over into businesses helping other businesses. One of the main forms of interaction that Whitelam Books has with the community are their readings, or author visits. Whitelam Books has a feeling of comfort and warmth. It is bright, organized, and a fun environment. Due to Covid, these readings were not able to be held in this indoor environment because being inside was too dangerous and risky. Bunratty Tavern, next door, offered up their outdoor patio in the mornings when they were closed as a venue for these readings. Whitelam took them up on this and it was a huge success. Families in Reading were finally able to have a safe, but fun, choice of activity to do with their young kids. They look forward to continuing this in the spring when it gets warmer out.
Assistance from the Government
The government, specifically the Small Business Administration, offered various types of relief services to companies to help the hit they were taking in the pandemic. Whether business was booming or not, employees still had to be paid. The various services ranged from counselling, to different types of loans and grants. There were many ways that the government tried to help. The grand total of $413.4 billion was broken down into different federal accounts but the most spending was given out through small business loans.
Throughout my discussions with different local business owners, I noticed that the P.P.P loan was the most common. The focus of this loan, the Paycheck Protection Program, was to ensure that owners could keep their workforce employed during this crisis. Collins from Good Hearts, and Simms Jewelers both felt that the P.P.P loan was extremely helpful. They were able to keep their employees and pay them, which allowed the employees to feel comfortable. Monahan also expressed that the loans she was given from the government were extremely helpful. “You want to be able to give people the opportunity to stay home if they are not feeling well and not have them lose any time off or pay, so, yes, that was definitely beneficial.”
Effect on Employment
The impact that Covid had on unemployment is undeniably of great importance. If you do not realize this impact, walk into your nearest coffee shop, or local restaurant, majority of them are underemployed and hiring, and it may take a little longer for your food to arrive due to the short supply of staff. In the height of the pandemic though, employees were let go, or not allowed to work, or working from home. Changes had to be made to staff and people sadly did need to be fired because owners could not afford to have them on their payroll any longer.
Some, such as Whitelam Books, have not had to make cuts. “I am very lucky, I have a phenomenal staff. In fact, we had to add a substantial amount of staff starting last May. My original team is still here.” A positive statement reassuring that there are people who love their work and want to be there and help their community. Monahan only had one employee leave, and Dicara did not have to make any cuts, but they are now looking for a few more employees to help out. Simms was able to pay their employees using the P.P.P loans. Collins from Good Hearts said, “I was able to continue to pay the one and only full-time employee that I had at the time and that qualified us for the P.P.P loan by keeping her on staff and paid.” On the other hand, Collins found that the government funded loans and programs were not helpful for her, but local grants from the town of Reading were.
Business Pre and Post Covid
Although the effects of Covid are definitely still lingering, and the future is unknown, most businesses seem to be relatively back to normal. Monahan mentioned, “The effects of covid are not over yet.” Pamplemousse has just recently had to close their kitchen because of supply chain issues. Numbers in revenue are approaching the same as they were before, but there are still differences in how they are achieving those numbers. The different methods people came up with to keep their businesses going are smart and could be long-lasting. According to shrm.org, “75 of small-business owners are confident that their business will be better prepared to handle a crisis like COVID-19 if it occurred in the future.” It is a reassuring feeling for owners to know that they have gotten through Covid. If they can do that they can conquer most challenges that could come to their business in the future.
Monahan said that while her numbers are good and on paper and they seem to be back in business, the difference is the foot-traffic. Pamplemousse was previously known for tastings and holding events. She will continue some of the new things they have added in the pandemic, such as a weekly vegetable pick-up, because she feels it was beneficial and actually got her business more publicity and people became aware of them. Whitelam stated similarly that her numbers are back. “Other than some rockiness in the early months of the pandemic our numbers came back on a consistent trajectory with where they should have been. So we are in pretty good shape.”
For some businesses, the effect that Covid had made their business stronger than ever. Collins said that Good Hearts is “trending stronger”, which is great to hear that local businesses can be thriving in a situation such as this. Simms also said that business compared to pre-Covid is “better”. Dicara’s Deli is getting there, not where they were pre-covid yet, but approaching and on the track.
The outdoor readings at Whitelam Books will continue, and various alternatives from local businesses will be held onto, but in general, most owners that I interviewed said that they will return to normal when possible, if they haven’t already. They hope to run their business the same as they did before Covid.
The future of the pandemic is unknown, but what is for sure is that the Reading community will continue to support their small businesses because of the strong sense of community already built.
If you are someone who has not been supporting, go to downtown Reading, and do your shopping on Main Street, there is everything you could need. Covid-19 had a huge impact on these businesses and it was an experience unlike any other that they will never forget