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The Salty Teacup, an eclectic boutique in St. John’s, closed its storefront in mid-March, just as Gov. Kate Brown was preparing to issue her “Stay Home, Save Lives” COVID-19 executive order.
Since then, keeping the store from going under has been a balancing act for owner Kate Urban.
“We turned off the heat, we barely turn the lights on if and when we’re here,” Urban said. We called every credit card, called every bank, put everything on hold. … We even cut off the garbage collection and just bring the garbage home.”
Urban built an ecommerce website for Salty Teacup the day after the shop closed, but her sales have dipped 75 percent in the last two months. She’s had to lay off most of her employees, and reduce the others’ hours.
On Friday, retail shops around the state—including in Portland—are allowed to reopen, provided they can follow a list of physical distancing and cleanliness guidelines. That includes keeping a distance of at least six feet between people, wiping down changing rooms and other high-traffic areas between each use, and requiring all employees to wear face masks.
But Urban doesn’t plan to open Salty Teacup right away.
“We would not be remotely ready” she said about reopening on Friday. “We can’t rush back to the model we had before.”
Urban is hardly alone in this decision. Of five small boutique owners and managers the Mercury spoke with this week, only one said they planned to reopen on Friday. The owners who don’t plan to reopen anytime soon cited concerns about being able to follow the state’s guidelines, financial uncertainty, and a diminished customer experience as reasons for waiting.
Betsy & Iya, a jewelry and accessory shop on Northwest 24th Avenue, only has about 600 square feet of retail space. Will Ceravich, the store’s director of development, estimated that the store would only be able to allow one or two parties in at a time, and both customers and employees would need to be vigilant about physical distancing. So rather than reopen, Ceravich is focusing one the store’s ecommerce site.
“That experience doesn’t sound very enjoyable,” Ceravich said. “And it just doesn’t sound very exciting to try on earrings and necklaces wearing a mask. … It sounds like a pretty miserable shopping experience.”
On top of that, Ceravich said, he recognizes that a jewelry shop is “not an essential business,” and he’d rather not contribute to any additional spreading of COVID-19.
“I can’t justify exposing our retail staff to the risk of a terrible disease just so somebody can have a new pair of earrings,” he said.
Elizabeth Hsia, the owner of North Portland plant and gift boutique Reclamation, echoed Ceravich’s concerns. She said that while the state’s guidelines for retail shops make sense, she doesn’t foresee “people actually enforcing it.”
“I’m a little concerned that once everything reopens, the cases are just going to go through the roof,” Hsia added. “As hard as it is to not be open, I have to be mindful of the fact that two of my employees are immunocompromised, and I’m immunocompromised, so is it worth getting sick?”
Reclamation is also closed for the time being, though it is selling its products online. Hsia opened the shop in July 2019, and has failed to qualify for small business loan options because of how new her store is. She’s still paying her employees, despite seeing a dramatic dip in revenue.
“What I’ve made since we’ve been shut is what we would’ve made in two weeks when we were open,” Hsia said. “It’s just a crappy situation all around. Everybody in small businesses in Portland are in the same boat.”
Carter and Rose, a 650-square-foot ceramics and jewelry shop on Southeast Division, also won’t be reopening in the immediate future. Owner Anna VonRosenstiel is instead offering online sales and curbside pickup options on the weekends, and staying connected to her customer base by leaving free clay outside the shop and posting ceramics tutorials on Instagram.
“A big part of Carter and Rose, when we were open, was having open studios and feeling like we were part of the community,” she said. “I think doing the free clay drop-off has been a nice way to continue that feeling.”
VonRosenstiel said she’s been heartened by the amount of community members still buying her products, but that she’s not sure it would make financial sense to staff the shop full-time. She said that when she does eventually reopen, she’ll likely need to sanitize each product after a customer touches it, making the shop less browsable.
“Picking up a mug and feeling how the handle feels, or holding a bowl in your hand and wondering what it would be like to eat oatmeal out of it—if those things are taken away from the handmade shopping experience, it’s harder to sell those things,” VonRoennstiel said.
Foundation, a philanthropic fashion boutique on Northwest 23rd Avenue, will be opening on Friday, or soon thereafter—but with some significant changes. Owner Holly Levow has reorganized the cash register area to make physical distancing feasible. The shop will be sanitizing dressing rooms after each use, and steam-cleaning clothing items customers try on but don’t purchase.
Foundation’s hours will be reduced, but on off-days customers who want extra space can schedule private shopping appointments. The store will offer curbside pickup as well.
“We are in a situation, being a small retail boutique, that the limit on customers in our store is not a stretch for us,” Levow said. “Because on any given day, we would rarely hit that maximum occupancy. We feel that we can offer our service safely.”
Levow added that as things change day-by-day, Foundation will be “fluid and adaptable” to new needs or restrictions.
Urban, the owner of Salty Teacup, hopes she can open her shop in June or July. She plans to experiment with stocking new products that are conducive to social distancing. For example, lotions can be dispensed as single-use samples to customers, so no one touches the actual product until it’s purchased.
While the impact of the coronavirus has been hard on her and her store, Urban said that her experience living near the World Trade Center in New York at the time of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks taught her to approach times of difficult change with an optimistic attitude. Her advice to other shop owners is to “mentally approach this from, ‘Okay, this is a great stop where you now have a moment to reorganize.’”
“You’re going to have to,” she added. “It’s not going to go back to the way it was. But that’s the beauty of it, too.”