Lindsley Bowen is glad to be back in her shop. As the owner of Carlisle & Linny Vintage Jewelry in downtown Hillsborough, she reopened her 600-square-foot store in hopes of seeing regular and new customers who were recently given permission to leave their homes after the shelter-in-place order was lifted. She was also anxious to see her store’s revenue rise again.
But for Bowen — an many other retailers that have reopened along Churton and King streets — customers have remained cautious with their shopping and spending.
“During the early days of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place, I did pretty well online because people needed ‘retail therapy,’” Bowen said. “I was doing fairly well. I was at about 65 percent of revenue. Now, I’m down to about 25 percent. Maybe not even that. It’s not like I have thousands of customers. I have a solid base of customers and they all bought stuff. But I think a lot of people thought this would be over by now. And now they realize this isn’t going away and maybe they need to hold on to their money and be more careful with how they spend it.”
Bowen has had her store on Churton Street for almost three and a half years. She said the summer months are typically good for hers and neighboring businesses because they’re a small-town destination.
“Aside from the holidays in November and December, this is usually my best time,” she said. “We usually get people from Virginia and South Carolina.
“We’re making less. We have to figure out how to get more customers downtown. I don’t think people realize we’re trying to reopen, but it’s not easy when people are not coming out, or calling to make appointments, or anything,” Bowen added.
What Bowen and other downtown small businesses will be seeing more of are bills. Several of the buildings in the area are owned by Hillsborough Holdings LLC, which offered tenants a three-month grace period on rent because of COVID-19. But that period ends this month and rent will be due in July.
Bowen said she appreciated and needed the break on the rent. She also understands that at some point, the rent has to be paid. She’s just not sure how it’s going to happen given the lack of shoppers coming to the area.
George Horton, co-owner of Hillsborough Holdings, said he and his business partner, Jim Parker, have been in discussion on how to handle the situation. The two also own Hillsborough Development LLC, which is responsible for the Gateway Project in downtown that is home to the Weaver Street Market. The company prides itself on being deeply invested in the success of downtown Hillsborough.
“We need them as much as they need us,” Horton said. “We’re expecting to work with each retailer through the end of the year.”
“We understand there is no blanket solution,” Parker added. “We can work with them individually to help. We sent them a letter addressing the issue. We want their feedback. We want to help their businesses stay alive.”
Sharon Wheeler, who owns and runs the Purple Crow Book Store on King Street, said she is also thankful for the patience and understanding of her landlord. But she also believes reopening has done little to bring customers back to her store.
“The emphasis of when we reopened was overblown,” Wheeler said. “People do not feel confident about going out.”
Wheeler, who has operated her shop for ten years, said her business is still surviving on revenue from the previous November and December holidays.
“If we’re still dealing with the pandemic at Christmas, then it will be devastating.”
Jeannie Petterson, who owns Uniquitiques on King Street, said her landlord has been good to her, but she is struggling just to make rent now.
“Even trying to open has so many more challenges that we have to now adjust to, to be safe and keep our customers safe,” Petterson said. “I’m constantly thinking about that. And just because we are trying to open doesn’t mean people feel safe or comfortable coming out to shop. Small businesses are really hurting.”
Even N.C. Treasurer Dale Folwell expressed the value of people spending money, if they can. “The people who have the means to consume; the people whose income has not gone down because of COVID-19, those people should be consuming,” Folwell said. “The single-biggest thing they can do to help their community is consume.”
But until people feel safe venturing out more often, small businesses and their owners will continue struggling to find the means to get back on track.
“I was approved for a small business loan that will help me with the back rent and for a couple of months going forward,” said Lindsley Bowen. “But I’m not certain that I will be able to keep my business.”