Decisions have a short shelf life during a pandemic.
On the afternoon of Thursday, March 19, Ted McGreer was intent on keeping open Ted's Shoe and Sport, on Main Street in Keene, New Hampshire. His nine employees needed the money. And his customers needed sneakers and orthotics for the solitary walks and runs that had become their sole reasons to venture outside. Even as traffic dropped to 10 or 15 customers a day, the staff was frantically wiping down pens, door handles, and credit card keypads. For regular clients with predictable shoe sizes and preferences, McGreer offered curbside service and home delivery.
The next morning McGreer spoke up at a virtual town hall for the Keene business community, a recurring event established by the city's mayor, George Hansel, for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. He expressed gratitude for the "kind, generous, and compassionate" customers who continued to support the business. Then he mentioned that weekend marked the store's 20th anniversary. "But I am uneasy for the health of my employees," he said. "So I am going to come out and say we are closing retail operations. I feel sick to my stomach about it."
McGreer concluded, "I love each and every one of you. We are in this together."
Keene, with a population of around 23,000, is a vibrant city in a bucolic corner of southwest New Hampshire. The business district, composed of about 150 mostly family-owned stores, is clustered on Main Street, a leafy boulevard of trim brick buildings. There is the Keene State college campus, a nearly century-old theater, and a gazebo. Tourism has been rising every year. A $30 million arts-and-culture corridor is in the works.
Keene's business owners compete, of course. Still, it is the kind of place where a restaurateur who runs out of mixed greens will borrow some from the bistro down the street. Where veteran merchants mentor a newbie opening her first store. And where business owners describe other business owners as family. So even as fears of Covid-19 shutter store after store and merchants weigh unpleasant decisions, Keene's business owners are closing ranks as never before. "We already have a strong sense of community here and we are building on that," says Hansel, the mayor. "I think that will make the difference in weathering this storm."
The power of a clever promotion
Even as McGreer grieves the temporary closing of Ted's Shoe and Sport, he is thinking how to help his fellow merchants. In the works: a store-sponsored virtual run. Participants will pay $20 to register online, and then do a 5K witnessed only by their cellphones. McGreer will transfer 100 percent of the proceeds to gift cards for use at local businesses chosen by the runners.
If the generosity is typical of McGreer, the creativity shows the influence of Luca Paris, McGreer's best friend. Paris launched Luca's Mediterranean Café in 2000, the same year McGreer opened his shoe store: The two businesses bookend Main Street. He is a zealous booster of Keene's small businesses, including other restaurants, whose owners he talks about and sometimes interviews on his weekly radio program.
Paris's greatest strength is his promotions: He is an imaginative and puckish marketer. Last week when the governor mandated delivery and curbside service only for restaurants, he pulled out rolls of toilet paper from storage, slapped on stickers with the restaurant's logo, and wrote on their wrappers "We've Got Your Back ... Side." One roll went into every bag heading out the door to customers. "My only goal was to make people happy," Paris says. "Now, oh my God, they are all over Facebook!"
Paris also sometimes borrows ideas from others, like when he recently urged business owners to buy meals for their staffs and to patronize a different local restaurant each time. He got that from Jerel Gomarlo, the third-generation owner of Gomarlo's Shop 'n' Save Supermarket, which is a few minutes away in Swanzey, New Hampshire.
While Covid-19 panic has tripled the supermarket's business, it all but closed the small restaurant next door, so Gomarlo started buying breakfast there for a staff that has now swelled to almost 40. The next day he expanded the practice to lunch and has been spending between $500 and $700 each day at a different Swanzey or Keene establishment.
"I know if I had to shut my doors for any length of time, more than likely we wouldn't open back up," Gomarlo says. "This might help them get by a little bit."
Shutting down, but paying it forward
Last June, Taryn Fisher opened the Keene Fine Craft Gallery in an elegant brick building directly across Central Square from Luca's Mediterranean Café. The store, which markets products from the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, is a decorator's dream of graceful blown glass, delicate prints, and saturated color textiles.
At Keene's first virtual town hall, on March 17, Fisher listened to one of her mentors, Good Fortune Jewelry & Pawn owner Roger Weinreich, speak eloquently about merchants' responsibility to the community and the importance of "flattening the curve." Weinreich and his wife and co-owner, Maddie, were in self-imposed lockdown following travel abroad and had transitioned their store to by-appointment only. His words struck home for Fisher, who that same day closed her store, hanging in her window a large sign: "CV-19 Pandemic Update. Need to shop? Contact us via email. We'll make an appointment." But passers-by still wandered in. So on Friday, after hearing McGreer announce his closing, Fisher took the final step and locked her door.
"I am shut down and it hurts. It just hurts," Fisher says. Her isolation is especially painful because she has no employees. Two days before shutting down she was sitting in her store, miserable and alone, when Perparime Abdullahu, owner of the neighboring Indian restaurant Royal Spice, dropped by to check on her. The two got to talking, and Abdullahu ended up ordering a custom plaque engraved with her children's names: a $225 sale.
As Abdullahu left, she told Fisher she was on her way to pick up lunch from Luca's, and further impressed on her the need to support the community. So Fisher got lunch there too, and the next day ordered from Yahso Jamaican Grille, a new downtown business. Naturally, she posted a Facebook video touting both restaurants.
Inspired by the spirit of camaraderie, the following day Fisher called Shannon Hundley, managing partner of Life Is Sweet, a candy store and bakery across the street, and offered to hand out $5 coupons for treats to the gallery's customers who came by for appointments. Because Life Is Sweet didn't have ready-made coupons, "I will just write $5 on my business card and give them that," said Fisher. "Go and get a free cupcake. It's on us." (Fisher is picking up the tab for now. She and Hundley haven't discussed how they'll work it out later.)
Fisher expects to make a red-or-green decision in late April. "Red is: It is over. I am toast," she says. "Green is: I can do this. Just hang on." One or two businesses may not survive, she concedes. "But people here have been working on Main Street for 20 years or more. They are doing what they can to keep this thing alive."
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Ted's Shoe and Sport owner Ted McGreer.