Editor's Note: Although the official Small Business Week has been postponed, we at Inc. feel it's always appropriate to recognize the teams and companies that serve the needs of their communities and help keep Main Street humming--and not just for one week!
For residents of Keene, New Hampshire, gray is the new black.
The Great Grey Tee Project has sold more than 4,000 shirts branded with the names and logos of roughly 350 area small businesses. More than $40,000 from those sales is going straight to the merchants, most of whom have closed down or are serving just trickles of customers.
"I reached out to 20 or so of my downtown friends and clients on a Monday, had the site up by Tuesday, and sold 700 shirts by Wednesday," says Joe Tolman, owner of Bulldog Design, a screen-printing and promotional products company across the street from Keene State College. "It's been really beneficial for the single-person businesses--hair and nail salons, people who do eyebrows. For some of them, it's the only way to get money."
Since coronavirus struck the U.S., Keene's downtown merchants have rallied round one another again and again. What began two months ago chiefly as random acts of kindness has evolved into orchestrated campaigns of mutual support. "We are a very cohesive little pocket of 27,000 people, which gives us the capacity to weather this thing differently," says Roger Weinreich, owner of Good Fortune Jewelry & Pawn, a 28-year fixture on Main Street.
As stay-at-home orders took effect, Tim Pipp, owner of Beeze Tees, another local promotional products company, began selling $10 Shop Local tote bags filled with coupons for area businesses. He has since switched to making T-shirt masks, and is printing a separate type of mask with local companies' logos for employees to wear when they reopen.
Ted McGreer, owner of Ted's Shoe and Sport, recently cut checks totaling $20,000 to more than 80 local beneficiaries of his store's virtual 5K. The business signed up 435 runners who, in lieu of registration fees, bought gift cards to merchants of their choice. McGreer discovered that about half the runners were his store's customers, but many were people from out of state who have family in Keene and just wanted to support the cause.
Although his own sales are down 75 percent, Tolman makes no profits from the Great Grey Tee Project, which provides work for several employees. He charges $19 for each shirt. Nine dollars covers his costs, and the business named on the shirt gets the rest. Already a few spots like Lab 'n Lager Food & Spirits and Prime Roast Coffee have sold more than 100.
Some of the companies were so small they didn't have logos for their shirts. Tolman made it clear up front he would not be designing logos for free. Ultimately though, he did it anyway.
Shining a light on the bright spots
Two months ago, Luca Paris, owner of Luca's Mediterranean Café, was urging businesses still in operation to buy lunch from a different local restaurant each day, and sending social-media shout-outs to his fellow merchants. But that was just the beginning of his efforts.
Now Paris's Facebook page is studded with selfies in front of local restaurants and praise for their food and adherence to safety protocols. His Thursday radio show, which predates the pandemic, features interviews with Keene chefs.
Every Friday, he hosts Spotlight With Luca Paris, a Facebook program celebrating bright spots from Keene business owners and others in the community. On one recent episode, Lisa Scoville, owner of Lisa Scoville Photography, shared her pictures of front-liners and others captured around Keene during the pandemic. On the same episode, McGreer explained his new Zoom-based custom shoe-fitting service.
Paris also heavily promotes local fundraising campaigns like the Great Grey Tee Project. His latest project is the Greater Keene Hospitality and Food Scene, an industry group through which local restaurateurs can share information and best practices and try to visualize the future. He pulled the first meeting together on Zoom in less than a day with a dozen local business owners, representatives from the New Hampshire Restaurant and Lodging Association, and Keene's mayor, George Hansel.
"Keene has our own internal stimulus package," says Paris, interviewed while delivering boots to his wife, who runs the food service for city schools and was outside on a cold April day distributing free lunches to children. "Not knowing when any stimulus will come from the government, we are finding ways to help each other."
Dark days, then a glimmer of hope
Taryn Fisher received $600 from the Great Grey T-Project, and another couple hundred from McGreer's virtual 5K. "I am deeply grateful for it," says Fisher, owner of Keene Fine Craft Gallery. "But my operating costs in my current location are close to $5,000 a month."
In mid-March, Fisher had dolefully accepted the need to lock the doors of her gallery--which, after nine months in operation, was just starting to gain traction. She soon ended her lease, which introduced a new problem: how to return pieces from the gallery to their creators during the stay-at-home order. She can't get all 160 of the artists to pick them up, and can't afford to ship them. Her lawyer has assured her she's safe from eviction until the courts reopen at the end of May, which buys her some time.
At the end of an hour-long conversation, Fisher held onto some hope for the business. Mostly though, she sounded tired and resigned. Then, less than an hour later, she shot off an email:
"After you and I hung up the phone, I got a message from Mayor George Hansel. He (and others) would very much like to see my gallery survive the pandemic. He is exploring options for a fundraiser."