When the corona virus lockdown hit in early Spring, merchants in the Eau Gallie Arts District (EGAD) were blindsided.
Becca Polak and her husband were forced to close not one, but two businesses, at the same time.
Their combo business bar & barbershop, Traditionals…Cuts, Shaves & Brews, is located in the heart of the district, with the old-timey barbershop window fronting the main drag on Eau Gallie Boulevard, and the bar behind it.
In mid-March, both were forced to close in the statewide shutdown.
“We were shocked at first,” said Becca. “We shut everything down, but continued to pay our bartender, even while the bar was closed.”
By mid-May, the barbershop had reopened, with the bar following in early June. According to Becca, the haircutting business has been going strong since reopening. Thanks to a lot of pent-up demand, appointments are booked a month in advance.
Taking a Hit
Without a doubt, small businesses have borne the economic brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic. But small businesses in EGAD have been hit particularly hard, maybe worse than others. These are “Mom and Pop” businesses who rely almost entirely on foot traffic, and either were forced to close, convert to an online business model or operate by appointment only. None of the businesses we spoke with were able to obtain government grant money under the federal CARES program.
Nearly all of EGAD shut down in March, and months later many businesses still were closed. Some may never reopen.
Only a handful, namely Ace Hardware, a vape shop and a pawn shop, were deemed “essential” and allowed to stay open.
Anthony Soland closed the doors and locked up at Standard Collective in early March, weeks before other businesses in the Eau Gallie Arts District followed suit. “We took it seriously right off the bat”, he said.
His business model is rather versatile: on the corner of the boulevard, his large storefront has a decidedly industrial vibe that houses a clothing boutique, custom T shirt printer and a leather goods section, where custom wallets, bags and belts are made on site. Pre-pandemic, live music was offered on weekends.
After closing the shop, weeks of uncertainty turned into months. “We started making custom masks,” something to pass the time and generate a little revenue, Anthony said. As the economy sank deeper, business at his shop was sustained only by special orders, and through traffic generated by Facebook and from past regular customers. Standard Collective re-opened in early June. According to Anthony, “people are out shopping and supporting local business.”
On the intersecting Highland Avenue, Jody Carter, who owns Art Expressions Fine Custom Framing & Gifts, toughed it out through March following social distancing guidelines in her store, but steadily watching traffic decline. At the end of March, Jody closed her doors and turned to a “by appointment only” business model.
The pandemic couldn’t have hit at a worse time.
The winter and early spring months are her busiest time of the year.
She furloughed two employees and shifted Rebecca, her framing employee, to a per-diem basis. “We are doing one-on-one custom framing only”. Her marketing has been via email and social media. She describes business as slow but steady. “This may be the way we have to do business in the future”.
Jody has been paying the rent and utilities by drawing on a nest egg in her business account. “I haven’t had to touch my personal savings…yet.”
Beginning in June, Jody reopened on a limited basis. Her hours are 11-3, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, with framing by appointment only.
At Ralph’s Art Supply, also on Highland Avenue, shop owner Art Sanders compares the downturn to a “bump in the road…kinda like a hurricane”. He was able to reopen in May, after a month closed. Business is slower, but those customers who come in the store are buying more, as much as four times more at a time, he says. “They’re buying more supplies and less framing.” Ralph has one full time employee and kept her on the payroll even during the shutdown.
Down the avenue, tucked away off the street and across from the Foosaner Museum, Joan’s Perfect Pies has not only stayed open during the shutdown, but thrived. A sign on the corner says “Baking Now!” And they’re baking a lot.
Owner Joan Flavin, who manages a staff of four employees, says they sell 75 to 100 pies a day.
“We are really busy, business is better now”.
“We only allow one customer in the store at a time,” she continued. There is regular sanitizing of the workplace, employees wear gloves and try to maintain social distancing.
Joan says she’s grateful that “a lot of people try to support local businesses. We never [were forced to] shutdown because we are takeout only.”
5th Avenue Gallery
The 5th Avenue Art Gallery just a few steps away reopened in June, after months of closure. Renee Decator, a local acrylic artist, is president of the co-op that houses a collection of mixed media, sculpture, jewelry and fine art. She says the gallery has been “pretty busy” since reopening. They only allow five customers in the gallery at a time and are requiring customers to wear a mask.
New Normal, New Way of Business
As Florida progresses with phased re-opening of business and public spaces, the businesses in EGAD will likely settle into a new normal, whatever that may be.
But the impact on shop owners will have lasting effects. Months without customers and cash flow will have a financial and emotional impact; many will be forced to consider new ways to attract customers and market their businesses. Some shops may not survive, but many will, rebounding with the grit and determination typical of this scrappy, historic district that helped shape the Melbourne community at large. •