Small businesses ‘hanging on by a thread’ in fight for customers

Melissa DiNunno could buy books for her 9-year-old son Teddy at Barnes & Noble or on Amazon, but her go-to bookseller is Storybook Cove, a small shop tucked behind a car dealership parking lot in Hanover.

“I’m not a big-business person,” said DiNunno, 37, of Norwell. “I’d rather give my money to my neighbor, to someone I know, instead of to a big corporation.”

Eight months after the coronavirus pandemic hit, shops like Storybook Cove were counting on “Small Business Saturday” to draw customers like DiNunno at the start of a holiday shopping season more pivotal than any other.

“It’s never been more important than it is in 2020,” said Jon B. Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “Consumers need to realize that many of these small businesses are hanging on by a thread. How they do this holiday season will determine whether or not they have a future in 2021.”

Storybook Cove saw a fairly steady flow of customers Saturday, which heartened Janet Bibeau, who has owned the business for 30 years.

Bibeau had to close the store from March 24 to May 25 and temporarily lay off two part-time employees due to the pandemic. During that time, she managed to stay in business only by shipping orders and delivering some herself for Easter and Mother’s Day.

She also was forced to get creative. In July, she started a subscription service to help customers who either don’t know which books to get for their children or don’t want to come into the store out of fear of contracting the virus. They can fill out a questionnaire with their child’s age, reading ability and interests and each month get two paperbacks or one hardcover book tailored to them and a small gift, such as a bookmark or a stuffed animal. She’s also branching out into subscriptions for adults.

Pavlos Avramidis, manager of The Common Cafe & Patisserie in Norwood, said yesterday was the slowest Small Business Saturday he has seen since his family opened the business years ago. He thinks the reason he didn’t see many of his regulars is because some people went away for Thanksgiving weekend, even though officials had urged them to stay home.

“Small Business Saturday is very important just to keep the money in the town to help keep businesses open,” he said. “Weekends tend to be quiet, kind of a leisure day around here, and today I have only half the business I had last Saturday.”

The cafe never closed during the pandemic, surviving by preparing takeout orders and making deliveries until the state allowed indoor dining again. But Avramidis and his sister found themselves out of work for three months before then.

In Boston, E.B. Horn Jewelers has been operating by appointment only, due to the state’s limits on the number of people who can be in a store at any one time.

“Business has been pretty good,” Richard Finn, the store’s manager, said Saturday. “We’re certainly not doing the kind of business we were before the pandemic. Then, it would be wall-to-wall people.”

At Charles River Running in Norwood, many regulars and new customers stopped by to shop.

“They made an extra effort to shop local and support their downtown,” the store’s owner, Charlotte Walsh, said.

The business was closed for eight weeks in the spring, Walsh said. And although she didn’t lay anyone off, she misses Thursday Strong, the running and walking group that used to meet at Charles River Running each week, log three miles and finish back at the store before gathering at a local pub, “which is the reason people join a running club: You talk and share food and drink,” Walsh said. “We miss that part a lot.”

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