It started with limiting large gatherings, then moved to smaller gatherings. Now it’s no gatherings.
Individual school districts started closing. Then they all did.
Gyms and casinos were forced to shut down. Restaurants, too, but with the option to continue doing takeout and delivery. Nail salons, beauty salons and barbers were also shuttered.
Next up, nonessential employees were told to stay home in increasing numbers.
Finally — well, not finally, but most recently — on Friday, everything changed once again with an executive order by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of “100% closure of nonessential businesses” by 8 p.m. Sunday. Included was a “90-day moratorium on any residential or commercial evictions.”
This was a major blow to an economy that was already in free-fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Scarsdale’s small business community will suffer like the rest of the country.
Local business owners hope Cuomo’s “New York State on PAUSE” (Policies, Assure, Uniform, Safety, Everyone) is just that — a pause — not the equivalent of a reset button once nonessential workers and businesses are permitted to go back to work.
Many local businesses closed their doors prior to the mandated dates, including nail salons, and most who stayed open as long as possible gradually sent their employees home, many with no guarantee of a return date. The dwindling foot traffic in the village was evident on Friday and Saturday, as the government has urged social distancing to flatten the curve of the spread of coronavirus.
I Am More owner and Scarsdale Business Alliance co-president Marcy Berman-Goldstein has been loud and clear with her message to the Scarsdale community: Support businesses now, or pay the ultimate price later.
In addition to working to keep her own Spencer Place business going, dealing with distance learning for her own kids and managing her personal life, Berman-Goldstein has devoted much of her time and energy to helping all Scarsdale businesses weather the storm. She’s been making pleas to the community for their help in keeping the downtown vibrant.
With businesses given such short notice to close this weekend, Berman-Goldstein believes the No. 1 thing residents can do is buy gift cards from local merchants or prepay for their services, especially for businesses that can’t offer any in-person or delivery options during the closure.
“I don’t think people’s attention is focused on shopping right now — mine certainly is not — so I think the simplest way to support us is to purchase a gift card,” Berman-Goldstein said. “There’s no stress in it because it’s giving the businesses liquid cash to be able to pay bills, pay rent, pay for inventory that’s come in.”
Berman-Goldstein understands the community has been affected as well — residents have had their own losses of income, decreases in their portfolios and their own hardships.
“It’s not just the business center — it’s all of us — but if each person in the community picked a few of their favorite businesses they frequent and they literally called up and purchased a $100 gift card, a $200 gift card, whatever they feel comfortable with, it would go a long way,” she said, noting that two of her loyal customers each recently purchased $500 gift cards to show their appreciation and support.
Last fall, Berman-Goldstein began putting her inventory on her website, so she’s ready to sell online, offering 20% off merchandise and 10% off gift cards. She also expects reduced price sales to be going on when stores reopen.
The question is not only when they can open, but if they can. The governor’s latest message leads her to believe it will be more like months rather than weeks, at this point.
SBA has worked hard to make downtown more “vibrant,” but has had to postpone the May 2 Health and Wellness Fair. SBA once again hopes to showcase the village at the second Scarsdale Music Festival in the fall.
“We want to bring people in here to see what an amazing village center we have,” Berman-Goldstein said. “I’m working so hard with Rush Wilson [of Scarsdale Improvement Corp.] and his grandson and really trying to bring relevant businesses [here]. There are leases that are just about to be signed right now on some of these vacancies and I don’t want this pandemic to prevent that from happening. Hopefully we’ll get through this, these new businesses will be able to open and the businesses we already have here will survive.”
Other businesses that were forced by the governor’s order to close their doors gave a snapshot of their reality on Friday and Saturday as they scrambled to prepare for the pause. They are among the dozens of merchants locally hoping they are lucky enough to keep afloat with distance retail:
In her 35 years, owner Michelle Anderson remembers closing down La Dentelliere, which touts European gifts, tabletop and home décor, on East Parkway, once for a major snowstorm. “I would welcome a blizzard right now,” she said.
Anderson sent her employees home at different times over the past two weeks for their own safety, and hopes she’s able to bring them back whenever the shutdown ends. She plans to pay for their medical coverage for as long as she can and she will support any unemployment claims that are filed.
As the days went on and more information was released about COVID-19, the foot traffic lessened in the village, but Anderson was happy to see some of the older residents out and about because she knew they could use a smile and a wave from a familiar face.
“Zachys is open and we kind of share the same customers,” Anderson said. “The men like to go in there, though I think the women are going in there, too, now. We have the same customers, so as long as they stayed open I was OK.” She added, “I’m a member of this community.”
Neighbor Zachys is able to remain open as an “essential” business. The wine and liquor store will be able to do curbside pickup, like restaurants. Only employees will be allowed inside the store.
“My personal opinion is the government should have closed us sooner,” Anderson said. “We have the perfect example of China and of Italy. It’s not going away. It’s getting worse.”
Despite just making final preparations to close, Anderson was eagerly awaiting the store’s reopening.
“I think everyone will be so happy to be back out and shopping and living a normal life again,” she said. “I think the streets will be crowded and full of joy once it’s all done.”
The husband-wife duo of Ken Levinsohn and Ellen Strauss opened Learning Express on Spencer Place 22 years ago. They’ve closed on rare occasions due to bad weather; a day or two after Sept. 11, 2001; and once when someone drove a car through their front window. “In comparison that was easy,” Levinsohn said.
The past three weeks have been a whirlwind of activity with the spread of COVID-19, and Levinsohn could see the writing on the wall.
“It was a very fluid situation and we were kind of monitoring things; monitoring what was going on in the village and with our customers, measuring the level of fear and all that,” Levinsohn said.
Having only two days to get everything in order was not a lot of preparation time, but Levinsohn still hopes that after the official mandated closure is lifted, he can offer curbside pickup, which the store had been offering.
“We’re sending all of our employees home and my wife and I are going to be … taking orders over the phone, by email, via Instagram, Facebook,” he said. “We’re going to be offering virtual tours of the store, doing FaceTime. The whole last week I’ve been photographing the store, texting pictures to my customers and communicating with them. It’s kind of like the new way of doing business, sadly.”
Serving the community is tops on Levinsohn’s list of priorities as it becomes a win-win situation for shoppers and the business. With kids home from school, parents are looking for things to occupy them when they aren’t doing distance learning. And it’s not just toys, but puzzles, games, craft kits and workbooks. “People are relying on us … and it’s important for us because we have rent to pay and bills to pay, electricity, insurance, all the things that come with running a business,” Levinsohn said.
The goal is to maintain revenue, as the store’s main January through November lifeline has always been birthday gifts. “That business has dried up — everyone is canceling birthday parties,” Levinsohn said. “It’s been balanced by people buying things to keep their kids busy. Not quite an equal balance, but we’re hoping for the best.”
Some of Learning Express’ vendors have already announced they will not be able to ship goods based on their own local laws and situations, but Levinsohn believes the store has enough stock to last a few weeks — if sales go well.
Levinsohn and other business owners don’t yet know if any aid will come from the government.
“There’s too much we don’t know,” he said. “We’re just trying to comply with the regulations at this point and serve the community as best we can. We’re trying to stay optimistic and use every tool we have to serve the community, but that has its limitations.”
Scarsdale Flower Boutique
Herman Chino bought Scarsdale Flower Boutique on Harwood Court nine years ago. And he recently bought a new delivery van, too. He’s been seeking legal advice to see if he and his son, Bryais, are allowed to do deliveries. “Are we essential?” he said. “I don’t know.”
The flowers in his shop are considered perishables and don’t have a long shelf life. “Flowers die after five, seven, eight days,” Chino said. “Plants last, but they die after a certain time. They need maintenance. Of course we have rent, lights, water, all the utilities.”
Chino agrees with the shutdown, but the longer it drags on, the less he is likely to support it. “I have a family, I have my employees, who I already called to stay home,” Chino said. “It could be a week, it could be a month. We don’t know. It’s going to hurt business for sure. Hopefully the government does something for small businesses, not just my business, all the businesses. They are suffering now.”
Bronx River Books
Mark Fowler and Jessica Kaplan have been in business with Bronx River Books on Spencer Place since September 2018, one of the newer shops in the village.
“It’s lived up to our expectations in many, many ways,” Fowler said. “We’ve had great support from a community that’s interested in reading and the dynamic is terrific in terms of our interaction with customers and readers interacting with each other in the store and making recommendations to each other.”
Bronx River Books hosts author talks, signings and writing groups. They once had three or four dozen people in the store when they hosted Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the nonfiction “Say Nothing.” “It’s been the dynamic bookstore that we’d hope to create in a very small space,” Fowler said.
Having to close down has been “distressing in a whole number of ways,” Fowler said on behalf of the entire business community. Foot traffic is crucial for his and other businesses. He was encouraged that some new businesses were coming in to fill some of the empty storefronts, a “positive” for the community.
“There have been fewer people on the streets for obvious and important health concerns and that’s affected us, but certainly — beginning Sunday — that affects us in a much bigger way,” Fowler said. “As we understand the rules right now, we can’t open up the store for curbside pickup, which we’ve been doing recently.”
Bronx River Books also plans to start relying on distance selling. People can contact them through their website, phone, email and social media to get their reading needs met by mail.
“We have to continue that part of the business from home, but it’s going to be a struggle,” Fowler said. “We certainly are wondering when it’s going to be over and when we can get back to business as usual and when we can start to rebuild the little neighborhood presence we always had in mind. I didn’t ever conceive of ourselves of being in the online business, but now we’re going to be relying on it.” He admitted, “I’m not sure what the rules will allow us to do.”
The goal is to stay “afloat.” Fowler believes it could be weeks, “perhaps months.”
“We’re hoping people will do what they can and we’re looking forward to the day when folks will be back in the shop,” he said.
The question of rent
As of Friday, the day the latest shutdown was announced, La Dentelliere’s Anderson said she had not contacted her landlord at Scarsdale Improvement Corp., the largest commercial property owner in the downtown.
“I think my landlord has enough of a headache going on right now,” she said. “I’m sure he’s questioning what he should be doing … I’ve never had a problem with Scarsdale Improvement. He’s always been a very good, fair person to me. I can only say the nicest things about my landlord and I am sure he will do the right thing for all of us because if we are successful, he’s successful. I know he loves this town and he wants all of us to be successful.”
Berman-Goldstein of I Am More said rent isn’t the most pressing issue for most merchants as they’ve invested large amounts of money in new merchandise, many in preparation for the changing seasons. Those bills will also be due sooner rather than later.
“What people don’t understand is even if the property owners agree to do a rent abatement or a decrease or a delay, a lot of these businesses, especially in retail, your largest expense is not your rent,” Berman-Goldstein said. “That’s only a small percentage of your overall bills when you’re having tens of thousands of dollars of inventory delivered. You’re relying on constant income coming in from sales when you do your budget. I know that even though I’m spending a lot more money in January and February on inventory, those accounts come due and you’re relying on those upcoming months of having income to pay those bills.”
For Scarsdale to get through this economic crunch, it’s going to take a tremendous collaboration from the village government, the landlords, the business owners and members of the community.
In that regard, it’s business as usual.