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Small Businesses Agonize, Adapt to Pandemic Yuletide

Caleb Suggs/WKNO

On Black Friday, Watty Brooks Hall could be found in her store, surrounded by pillows, throw blankets and home decor. The Brooks Collection is one of about a dozen small businesses in Collierville’s Town Square that was full of customers that day.

“The holiday season has been wonderful,” Hall said. “Everybody is observing social distancing, wearing masks, and you can tell they're so ready to get out.”

<--break->To get out, yes, but also to feel safe doing so in a time of COVID-19. Sandy Barrios, owner of Bazaar, a food and gourmet gift shop also in the square, said she’s had to make adjustments.

“Just because you don't want to come in, that doesn't mean that we can’t accommodate you,” she said. 

Like many small business owners, Barrios invested heavily this year moving inventory online. But she has also created personal experiences for customers that bigger stores can’t, like allowing people to schedule private shopping appointments after hours.

“I think that's an advantage of shopping small this year,” Barrios said. “You're not going into big box stores where there's thousands of people. You can maintain distance a little better in some of the small places.”

Barrios said crowds are smaller since the start of the pandemic. But they’re steady, and she’s thankful for that.

“I feel like our customers are really getting out and making a point of supporting small business, which we are, and we certainly appreciate it, and really need it now more than ever," Barrios said.

But location does seem to matter. The following day, I visited Robert Clayton, owner of Cupcake Cutie, Etc. on South Main Street in Downtown Memphis. He told a different story of his once-thriving sweet shop.

“Last year--this time on a Saturday, Black Friday, the weekend out there--I had tons of people,” Clayton said. “I had a line wrapped around trying to figure out how I was gonna bake more product. But it's one o'clock on a Saturday. Only people in here right now are me and you.”

He was right; there were no customers in sight for the half-hour I was there, and no employees either.

“Last year, I was able to afford actually having someone in my store,” Clayton said. “But this year, I don't want to take the risk this year on hiring someone and lose out on revenue that can most definitely be put towards something else.”

And with so many small businesses facing slimmer profits this year, running one could be the biggest risk of all.

This story is produced through a partnership with the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting.

It all started in 7th grade when my voice got low…real low. So low, that if a teacher wasn’t looking, they’d swear it was an administrator asking them about last night’s homework. So low that I got to be the only Bass 2 in middle school choir and got to play all the manliest roles in high school theatre. From early on, people always told me I had a voice for radio. Who knew what they were speaking into existence?