‘Most people won’t survive’: Local stores grapple with economic effects of coronavirus

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Magazine Street was still bustling on Saturday afternoon. That changed dramatically on Monday. (Sharon Lurye, Uptown Messenger)

By Sharon Lurye, Uptown Messenger

The economic effects of coronavirus reverberated across New Orleans on Monday, with local store owners describing feelings of bewilderment and anxiety as they considered how the virus would affect their bottom line. While some are cautiously optimistic, others have despaired of being able to keep their business alive through the pandemic.

“If it lasts for months, then most people won’t survive,” said Bettye Barrios, owner of the home goods store Aux Belles Choses on Magazine Street. “We’ve been here 29 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Just one customer entered Barrios’ shop on Monday. She sells linens, soaps, and gifts, many imported from France and England, but she had to cancel an upcoming business trip to Europe.

“A lot of our business, 60% or more, is from out-of-town people,” she said, “and there’s nobody coming in town now. No conventions, no meetings, no trips, none of that.”

On Saturday, Magazine Street was bustling – it was a beautiful spring day, restaurants and cafes were full of customers. There were even Girl Scouts selling their cookies on the street. On Monday, everything changed.

The city announced that all bars, casinos, malls, gyms and theaters were shut down, while restaurants could do delivery or take-out only. The economic damage on businesses that are closed is obvious, but many other types of businesses are feeling ripple effects as well.

“Magazine Street will be a whole different world,” said Barrios. “Just national companies will come in. There won’t be any local people. I don’t know how many can survive, honestly.”

Elizabeth Ahlquist, owner of Blue Cypress Books on Oak Street, said sales are down 30 percent. It’s a second-hand bookstore, so many of her clients are already on a budget, and if they’ve just lost their job at a bar or restaurant, they may no longer have any disposable income.

“As the reality of the financial situation hits my clientele … it’s going to become a reality here,” she said.

Nevertheless, she has vowed not to cut any employee’s hours or pay. To get more business, the store is offering free delivery to anyone within a 10-mile radius. “We’ve been very, very busy with that,”? Ahlquist said

For safety, the store instituted a limit of no more than 10 customers inside at a time. Ahlquist says everyone is understanding about the new rule, except the store’s resident cat: “She’s not getting nearly as much attention as she demands.”

Just down the street from Blue Cypress is the D4 Tabletop Gaming Café, where friends can gather to socialize over games like Dungeons and Dragons. Now that the café can only offer take-out food and social gatherings are discouraged, owner Mark Meyer is worried about what will happen to his business.

“People gathering is the problem — and that’s literally our business model, to get people around the table together,” he said.

“We’re going to try and switch focus to retail, but it’s probably going to hurt,” he said. “I can’t imagine it’s going to be anything like normal.”

The café is still open and has put more emphasis on selling items like board games, books, and miniature statues – all items that are perfect to pass time during periods of self-isolation. “If you’re stuck at home in quarantine, painting miniatures is a good way to pass the boring hours,” Meyer pointed out.

“We’re optimistic,” he added. “We have some of the best customers on the face of the planet.”

All the local owners emphasized that people can buy gift cards or order items online. Mandy Epley, who runs the Mandy Epley Skincare Studio out of her house near Freret Street, has started to offer 10% off skincare products and gift cards, plus over-the-phone skin consultations. She is also selling virtual gift cards via email.

“There’s been an immediate drop-off of clients,” she noted. “Clients that are fitness instructors, service industry, and stay-at-home mothers are all having to reschedule. And being a small, independent business myself, I am finding it very worrisome.”

Another bookstore owner, Tom Lowenburg of Octavia Books, said that his business has taken a hit – at least five book fairs have been cancelled, plus author events and book sales at conferences.

However, the store was busy over the weekend as people stocked up on books to read during self-isolation. Another ray of hope: a local private school bought 100 copies of a book for its students to read at home while the school did long-distance learning. He hopes more schools do the same.

“We do offer a special thing which is perfect for these times,” said Lowenburg.

He believes that since New Orleans survived Hurricane Katrina, it can survive coronavirus as well.

“We’re not going to roll over and die,” he said. “We’re going to keep ourselves relevant.”

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