It is no secret the effects of the coronavirus are visible in most of the working world. Small businesses and their owners, in particular, have hit a devastating roadblock, with many forced to close for months or permanently.
Wilmington’s local business scene has not been excluded from the shock of the coronavirus. Stores, salons, bars and restaurants began displaying their “Closed” signs late-March when Governor Cooper’s stay at home order was enacted. On October 2, North Carolina entered Phase 3 of COVID-19 restrictions, a step closer to normalcy with restrictions lifting and businesses reopening.
While Downtown Wilmington may have been a proverbial ghost town for almost three months, people are once again shopping and eating out. Albeit behind smiling eyes and masked mouths.
Nevertheless, no one is out of the woods yet.
Old Books on Front Street was among those deemed non-essential and, in turn, forced to fully close down. As an encore contributor, owner Gwenyfar Rohler often would open up about COVID effects on local businesses, including hers, in her Live Local column. Like so many of her neighbors, no one stepped into the shop for eight weeks. Now the Wilmington staple has reopened with some necessary changes.
“We now have a bouncer at the door when we are open,” Rohler says. “Masks are required (as per the governor), everyone gets their hands sanitized when they walk in the door. We limit eight people in the building at a time. . . . We bleach the door when someone goes through it and the front counter and pens after purchases.”
Rohler, who lost her uncle to COVID last spring, is all too familiar with the seriousness of the coronavirus and why diligence in safety measures is so important.
Many businesses during Phase 1 took to the virtual world of marketing to find remote solutions for keeping sales going. More than ever, Rohler has had to spend time and energy on her store’s online platforms. “With the loss of the staff I had to learn about social media,” she says. “So, Instagram, Facebook … we sort of have an e-commerce store on our website. It is all … a journey of discovery.”
Just around the corner on Princess Street, Memory Lane Comics also has had to adjust this “new normal” of virtual business. For owners and brothers Jake and Ben Motsinger, there were some lucky coincidences, so to speak.
“We closed to the public but maintained some sales by doubling down our efforts on eBay (we had just purchased a fairly large collection which provided great eBay products) and adding a new online shopping interface to our website,” Jake explains.
However, Jake describes the physical absence of regular customers in the store as not being able to see close friends.
“We missed [our customers] and the social aspects we get from knowing them, knowing their families and getting to be friends with them,” he shares. “After Phase 1, it became equally as difficult to try to feel out how to interact with people again as it had been to lose them.”
Both Old Books on Front Street and Memory Lane Comics are products of the ‘80s, opening in 1982 and 1983, respectively. Both have spent decades adapting, moving, expanding or restructuring in one form or another. Just as Old Books on Front found new ways to reach customers during the pandemic, Memory Lane did as well. Aside from online endeavors, Memory Lane ventured into curbside pick-ups for eager readers.
“People were hungry to read good stories during the stay at home orders and we had a lot of fun helping them and carrying their curbside orders out to the car,” says Jake. “We [also] made ourselves as busy as possible with store and operations improvements while the doors were locked. We opened back to the public the weekend after we were able to.”
Memory Lane Comics is now fully reopened with its own health-safety ordinances in place, including the addition of a doorman and the staff’s hyperawareness of crowding within the store.
“That was our best solution for a tiny store filled with as much merchandise as our shelves can hold,” Jake tells. “Most people seem to understand, and we have to occasionally say, ‘It’s getting pretty full in here!’ out loud to gently remind folks that people are waiting outside to come in if they’re not really there to shop!”
Like Rohler, Jake counts his blessings as he continues to go to his “dream job” every day. “I’ve seen how thin the lines can be between making it and not,” he notes about other less fortunate businesses. “I will continue to work harder every day to make sure this dream of owning a business with my brother is still a reality.”
Memory Lane Comics is back to pre-pandemic operating schedule: 11 a.m. – 7 p.m., Monday- Saturday, and 12 p.m. – 6 p.m. on Sunday. “It’s the perfect time of year for a walk around downtown so come on down,” Jake implores.
Old Books on Front Street is currently on a loose, in-store operating schedule of Friday through Sunday from 12-5 p.m. Shoppers can keep up with the store’s hours and other updates via their Facebook and Instagram pages, especially as holiday shopping days approach.
“We are very grateful to everyone who has ordered books through us, and purchased gift certificates,” says Rohler. “We adore you.”