“It’s almost like a normal day today,” said April Torres, looking out the window of Chicken Little, a kids’ and maternity store on the corner of State and Victoria streets. The opening of Starbucks across the street two weeks ago brought foot traffic back to the area, she added. The store Torres manages has been doing curbside service for maternity supplies such as breast pumps through the pandemic, but a sign at the door now tells passersby that they can call the store if they see something they like.
“We’ve always had sick leave, absolutely,” Torres said of Governor Newsom’s criteria that sick employees be able to stay at home. “And we have all the protective things. We want to make it safe for everyone.”
Chicken Little falls into a number of retail categories Santa Barbara County permitted to reopen on Friday: It sells toys, books, furnishings, music, clothing, and shoes — albeit for babies and toddlers. The other categories are antiques, florists, jewelry, and sporting goods.
The “low-risk businesses” that can reopen safely, according to the county’s guidance, are those that can impose physical distancing — measures already seen in grocery stores such as tape marking six-foot distances and a limit on customers and employee numbers — as well as the vendors and delivery trucks that serve them. At stores, self-service and customer bags are not allowed, signs must remind of symptoms of illness and to avoid going out when sick, and disinfection and sanitary supplies must be in place.
“We wear masks, and we’re sanitizing everything all the time,” said Mike Bryant, whose jewelry store Bryant & Sons is on State across from Paseo Nuevo mall. “Distancing is easy here. It’s a big space,” he said, “and we don’t have a lot of people in the store anyway.” He’d been able to serve regular customers, built over 55 years in business, who would contact Bryant’s when an anniversary or birthday called for jewelry, he said. June might be when he could open again to the public, Bryant said with hope. “We’re looking forward to opening our doors.”
The tough economic time for small businesses was made harder for Warbler Records and Goods, whose building at Santa Barbara and De la Guerra streets has been under construction since January. A break in the rent helped, said owner Kurt Legler, “but then the pandemic happened.” Warbler has been staying afloat by taking orders by phone and email for its vinyl, though they had to “pause” two part-timers until they can reopen again, Legler said regretfully. Today will be their first official day doing curbside service, and they’re open only three days a week: Friday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Out toward Goleta, word of mouth has kept the new and used sports store Play It Again Sports going, said manager Darin Myers. “We have curbside assistance,” he said, “and we get a lot of phone calls.” He didn’t think business was too much different, although he hadn’t been able to buy any used equipment. Impulse buying was definitely down, he said.
But for other businesses that rely on foot traffic and impulse buying, curbside pickup just isn’t as helpful.
“I’m putting things on Craigslist for people to pick up, but we’re a place where you walk around, find things from your childhood, and decide to buy them,” said Larry Zajic, who owns Old Town Antiques on Anapamu Street downtown. “We really need the ability for people to walk in and look around.”
Maintaining an online presence and managing curbside pickup also requires extra effort, especially for businesses that didn’t previously provide these services. “It’s almost impossible for any business to do that,” said Sara Deinhard, a buyer for Wendy Foster, whose popular women’s clothing stores are in Santa Barbara and Montecito. “There’s just no way to build an online shop with a very skeleton staff.” Luckily, customers have been “incredibly supportive and kind,” said Deinhard. The store has also thought up creative ways to sell clothing online, like putting together gift packages for Mother’s Day and Teacher Appreciation Week.
As Mother’s Day nears, another “low-risk” industry has seen increased sales: florists. Riley’s Flowers on Chapala Street is “at capacity” for the holiday, according to their website. Two others answered the phone but said they simply had no time to answer reporters’ questions.
Other stores have seen less business. Eric Kelley, owner of the Book Den opposite the Central Library, said sales are down by two-thirds. “There are no tourists, no cruise ships, no people from out of town,” Kelley said. “In a given year, about half of our sales are from visitors, so that’s going to be one of the problems moving forward.”
On the bright side, Kelley said, the Book Den has had an up-to-date website since 2001, so they didn’t have to scramble to create one. They also ship books internationally through partnerships with online book aggregators.
Despite the rough patch, many businesses have not forgotten Santa Barbara’s community spirit. Michael Kourosh, president of Santa Barbara Design Center, said his team was trying to help local businesses as much as possible. His Design Center, which has sold high-end furniture and provided home improvement services for the past 30 years, has kept silent on debts: “This pandemic impacted smaller businesses more,” Kourosh said. “We’ve extended credit to them and didn’t collect payments. We’re trying to be part of the community.”
Of the dozens of stores the Independent called, not all of them answered the phone. Santa Barbara’s economic condition has reflected the retail problems worldwide since the online monoliths emerged, and it’s unknown how many will survive COVID-19. Overcoming the obstacles of the pandemic has meant loans, layoffs, and furloughs for some businesses, but those we spoke with were optimistic that Friday’s tiny steps were a good sign that read, “Open for Business.”
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