“Do you have art supplies?” a young lady at the bookstore’s front door asked me last week.
“Not really,” I answered. “We have some blank sketchbooks we make in house, but they don’t have really good drawing paper, just standard copy paper. The closest place is Occasions… Just Write, in The Cotton Exchange. We could carry more in the way of fine pencils, markers and such, but we would rather have them as neighbors than try to compete with them on that stuff.”
“They usually have Caran d’Ache, which I never pronounce correctly, but I absolutely love the quality of their stuff.”
The Swiss-made art pencils are just luscious. Sigh.
Occasions… Just Write, located on the Front Street side of The Cotton Exchange, always has been a dangerous place for me to visit. When I was little, I loved to flip through their books of wedding and party invitations, and dream about all that I could do with pens so beautiful I knew they were really magic wands.
Peggy Mahan purchased the business a few years ago, and ever since they’ve formed an evolving art installation with New Elements Gallery nearby.
Peggy’s sister, Janet Munn, is responsible for the shop’s incredible window decor, including their Flamingo Month displays. I walked in last week to find Janet re-dressing the window. She and Peggy excitedly pointed out it was Janet’s first day back at work in two months. The Paycheck Protection Program had come through for Occasions, and Peggy was able to bring back Janet on payroll. Frankly, I was surprised they were open on a weekday—grateful, thrilled and proud but surprised.
With North Carolina facing phase one of reopening, downtown Wilmington feels like it is in a bizarre state of disorder. I have preached the gospel of our local economy’s interconnected web for many years in this column. When the bars and restaurants were ordered to cease usual business, I watched, in a matter of hours, Front Street turn into a ghost town. Now that retail is allowed to operate again, with social distancing and responsible safeguards, the struggle to balance the public good with economic survival becomes paramount for small retailers.
Daylight retail always has been a struggle for downtown. During my childhood it was mostly confined to The Cotton Exchange and Chandler’s Wharf, with a few brave exceptions on Front Street (New Elements Gallery, Finkelstein’s and our bookstore are notable examples). With the evolution of downtown as a tourist draw, the desire grew for added retail, and in the ’90s a spate of “cute little shops” popped up. Soon after, rising rents on Front Street made it harder and harder for small retailers to survive and compete amid online shopping.
Now, with the sudden changes of the novel coronavirus, the trajectory has changed. Most daylight retail today is a blend of brick-and-mortar and e-commerce. Many people recognize the importance of those “cute little shops” in our local economy: The family-friendly business are part of the city’s core tourist draw. Now that our bookstore has made it through the first weekend of reopening, I’m trying to connect with my colleagues downtown and see how they are doing and where they see us headed.
Visiting Occasions was high on the list.
Peggy has been doing what all entrepreneurs do: spinning and scrambling to try figure out next steps. It is a two-pronged approach for her: She is quickly learning about e-commerce, while trying to stock unique items that draw foot traffic to the store.
“We got an e-commerce store up in two weeks,” she explains. The site is really quite beautiful and functional. Peggy’s daughter, Kelly, did the leg work. “She took the photos, with our dogs appearing in quite a few shots.”
Though Kelly is helping her mom navigate new waters, Peggy confesses, “I’m still learning about social selling and e-commerce and trying to come up with ways to increase sales.” She adds that Occasions decided to start its own greeting-card line using Kelly’s photos. Kelly is also designing digital products to sell on the site.
Not to be outdone, Janet has been painting straw hats and gift boxes as unique and functional works of art. They are trying all they can because a big piece of the business is just gone: invitations. Peggy shakes her head. No big weddings, no graduation announcements, no spring parties or bar and bat mitzvahs. All have evaporated.
“I’m also sad about missing Flamingo Month this May,” says Peggy. “We’ve raised funds annually for hospice care during May in remembrance of my husband. So every May, since I’ve owned the store, we would put out his collection of flamingos, run promos and donate a portion of sale proceeds to Lower Cape Fear LifeCare (née Lower Cape Fear Hospice). That won’t be possible this year.”
The store’s logo was also designed in his honor. Kelly created in as a memory of her dad. “He’ll be gone eight years this May 19 and the store has become a family labor of love dedicated to him,” Peggy tells. “Making it thrive is so important, and it scares me to think I won’t be able to continue.”
That fear isn’t unfounded, but there are signs of hope. Like Old Books, Occasions received an R-3 grant from Wilmington Downtown Inc. and the Longleaf Foundation. The $3,000 grant was designed to help small businesses restock so they can reopen downtown. As of press time, at least 20 grants have been awarded.
Also like the bookstore, Occasions has received unexpected donations from a couple of longtime customers. That says a lot about their connection to the community and the role they fill. During quarantine, many people have been unable or unwilling to leave their homes to buy cards for events for which they would normally stock.
“I’ve chosen cards, signed and mailed them on a customer’s behalf,” Peggy explains. “The hardest part about this time is the unknown. Will we be able to survive this? We are so grateful for the Re-3 grant, private donations and the support of our customers, but we stress over if it will be enough with the bills mounting and rent needing to be paid.”
Like many people (and especially most small business owners), I don’t have much in the way of available funds right now. But I have been so fortunate with support for the bookstore—I know what a big difference a sale can make. My waterloo at Occasions is the line of 3D pop-up cards they carry. I adore them and use them to decorate the bed and breakfast; they look so cute hanging from sconces or the pull chain for the ceiling fan. So, really, I rationalize time and time again, the cards are a business expense. Right?
I picked out two cards for the B&B and a “Wizard of Oz” card for my friend Connie’s birthday; we will celebrate when we can see each other again. Looking around the store, I had the same thought I have every time I am there: I wish I could afford to buy one of everything, especially those beautiful, magical pens!
The joy of knowing that I can come back and visit Peggy and Janet again is a huge relief. If we can all hold on through these next few months, it will be a miracle, and it will take a community.