“Gov. Mills’ announcement made it a whole new ball game,” said Janson’s Clothing Store owner Betty Jeanne Maddocks in response to Gov. Janet Mills’ decision to move up the opening date for non-essential businesses from June 1 to May 11. This new date applied to all counties that did not have community transmission.
“There are parameters, but just being able to open the door is huge,” Maddocks said.
Those parameters included basing the number of customers in a store at one time on the square footage; providing sanitizer at the door for all customers before and after shopping; and encouraging shoppers not to touch items they didn’t intend to buy. For the full list of health and safety precautions, visit maine.gov
Janson’s opened May 11 after being closed since March 17. Maddocks decided to close her year-round business about a week ahead of the governor’s order for non-essential businesses to close. “It just seemed like things were heading in that direction. People were starting to get nervous … we thought it was the right thing to do.”
Ironically, for Maddocks, February had been “going along quite well” and March had been shaping up to be good as well. She noted more people are staying in the region through the winter than in prior years. And after closing, but being permitted to do curbside business, Maddocks said some of the store’s local patrons familiar with the merchandise called and bought items.
“We also posted a few things on Facebook here and there. We had some sales, but not a lot.”
Maddocks orders all of her stock almost a year in advance, so she’s already got merchandise for fall and winter.
“A lot of people, I’ve already heard aren’t coming. If they still have to quarantine for two weeks – they won’t come. I’ve been trying not to be too stressed out because I can’t control what’s happening. All I can do is the best I can with what I have.”
Alex Logan owns The House of Logan and The Village Store. Logan, too, was glad to hear of Mills’ decision; but it came with the need to get a stock item Logan hadn’t counted on – hand sanitizer. Of greater concern was how the state’s reopening plan was going to affect the season. In this two-month period, the business had been “affected tremendously,” Logan said.
“It’s as much or more a likelihood it’s (COVID-19 and the Governor’s phased plan) going to affect people’s behavior going forward through the summer,” Logan said. “Are we in fact going to keep the two-week quarantine? Maybe there could be other options: taking people’s temperature when they are entering the state? But will people refuse to do it or refuse and turn around … the likelihood is it will affect behavior. The question is will people come and will they feel comfortable?”
And, although Logan said he always worries he has too much stock – even when it’s on the shelves – the businesses have had to change most of the new stock they were planning on bringing in for the summer.
Logan and other store owners specializing in clothing have further concerns. Changing rooms are not permitted at this time, which will affect the returns and exchange policies. “Will we have to look into a quarantine area? It’s all unknown and most people are trying to be safe.”
Logan employs limited staff in winter, and more staff join around mid to late June. This year, however, he’s unsure about that timing.
“Yes, we will all do our best not knowing how our businesses will be impacted, but we believe it’s going to be quite substantial,” said Logan.
Tigger Leather owner Peter Dombrowski has limited winter hours – Thursday through Saturday noon to 5 p.m. – and was still doing some business when Mills’ closure instructions came down. He planned to reopen on Thursday, May 14.
“I did have people coming in and buying stuff, just a few small sales before closing. Most of my business, so far this year, has been custom orders,” said Dombrowski, who works with leather and silver. “The closure did affect me, but it won’t kill me. And I don’t have employees to consider. I’m a bit luckier than some.”
He said that the day after the governor’s announcement of May 8, “There was more life downtown; there was movement in the stores again … people were accepting Fed Ex and UPS deliveries.”
Dombrowski ordered all of his leather and other supplies in December and stitched his way through the winter to add to this year’s stock for his 43rd season in Boothbay Harbor.
When he wasn’t working with leather, he was making hand sanitizer - 2.5 gallons’ worth - of 91% rubbing alcohol and aloe vera gel.
Dombrowski said that when the business reopened, he would be wearing masks treated on the outside with Thieves oil or ancient oil, a blend of essential oils of rosemary, eucalyptus, lemon, clove and cinnamon bark that can be mixed with witch hazel or water.
Sherman’s Book Store owner Jeff Curtis could open three of the five stores – in Boothbay Harbor, Damariscotta and Bar Harbor. The other two, in Freeport and Portland, are in Cumberland County and had to remain closed. The Camden store was closed with the others March 24 and will not reopen.
Unlike Dombrowski, closing for Curtis and Sherman’s partner and Director of Operations Maria Boord meant laying off 35 employees. “We agonized over it, but business had dropped to the point we couldn’t afford payroll.”
The stores closed and the website Curtis created some 10 years ago took over – much to his surprise.
“We have such a great staff I haven’t had to do anything with the site for years. The day we closed, one of the employees asked about it. I said I’d take care of it, how hard could it be? (pause) Well, oh my God … It was fun and exciting!”
Puzzles were flying out to all corners of the country from California, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Washington, D.C., North Carolina and Maine. Curtis still doesn’t know how all the people placing the web orders heard about Sherman’s.
“It was amazing! So many orders came in it ended up being a full-time job, seven days a week – and those were 10-hour days. It gave me a lot of respect for web sales; I used to think why would someone order books or puzzles from Shermans.com instead of Amazon? But they do. They tell us they do it to support local and small business.”
As of May 13, the three Sherman’s locations are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The stores are observing the Governor’s safety precautions; there are protective screens up at the cash registers, all employees wear masks and all customers must also. The number of customers is based on square footage so in Boothbay there can be 15 customers in at one time; in Damariscotta that number is 10 and the Cafe will reopen June 1. The Bar Harbor store’s three buildings can have five customers in each section.
Curtis was concerned about how they would keep track of the number of customers at each store. He credited a Bar Harbor employee with coming up with the novel idea of using puzzle pieces to do the counting for them. Outside each location, customers will find a table with a bowl containing the number of pieces each location can admit at one time – and a bottle of hand sanitizer! Customers take one of the puzzle pieces and then return them to a cashier. If a bowl is empty when you arrive at the door, you’ll have to wait.
Fortunately, Curtis said summer orders haven’t been shipped yet and are being “heavily revised” in anticipation of an unpredictable season.
Store doors will be opening in Wiscasset, too. Debra Elizabeth’s owner Deb Schaffer is usually open year-round but not in 2020. “I’m opening May 18 – and I understand most of the other downtown businesses are, too.”
“Yeah, we’re hopeful,” said Curtis. “But ... if the quarantine is still in effect, we won’t have a tourist season,” Curtis said. “And getting through next winter … that will be tough. For all of us.”