Readers’ Favorite Retail Shops Share How They’ve Weathered the Pandemic and What’s Next

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Even as sales dwindle, Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews owners Miranda Sanchez and Jaime Sanchez donated 20% of sales during the last weekend of May to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP. 

By Hannah McClellan

The Saturday before Mother’s Day, Sally Stollmack placed the “open” sign in SallyMack’s storefront window for the first time in more than five weeks. As she stared at the sign – not knowing what to anticipate but trying to not expect much – she began to weep.

“It was so uplifting,” Sally says. “I had a high.” That day, she had close to 50 customers, after only announcing the store’s opening one night before. “Part of me was going, ‘It’s over, this is all behind me.’”

The next morning, reality set in.

“Now two weeks after, I had one customer all day,” Sally says. “I have, on average, two customers in a day,” she says. “It’s hard because I understand why people aren’t out. They’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, but it’s hard.”

Sally, who opened the Chapel Hill boutique in 2014, says sales have gone down nearly 70% since the North Carolina stay-at-home order was put into effect. And she’s not alone – many Chapel Hill businesses are struggling due to drastically decreased revenues following Gov. Roy Cooper’s March 27 order to close nonessential businesses. But, like Sally, they’re not giving up.

She’s shipped 12 to 14 packages a week for out-of-state orders. After a lifetime aversion to FaceTime, she started virtual appointments to sell products, sometimes scheduling as many as six a day. Once, she drove 15 miles to deliver one candle. “I am doing everything possible to keep it going, and I’m determined,” she says. “The love this community has shown to me, it’s what gets me up out of bed and into the store every day.”

Irene Kesselman, owner of Ali Cat Toys in Carr Mill Mall, turned to social media to promote products following her store’s closure. Parents have been her most consistent customers, many trying to find ways to entertain their children while also working from home. Puzzle purchases are up 300% in the country, she says, and that trend holds true at her store.

Still, sales overall are down 50% compared to last year.

“Our community is doing everything they can to support us, but if I look too far into the future right now, I lose more sleep than I’m already losing,” Irene says. 

Jamie Fiocco, owner of Flyleaf Books, says sales are down due to many author and spring event cancellations. Costs of both labor and shipping have risen, but having an established website for online orders helped with the transition. “We’re trying to be creative,” Jamie says. “Next week we should have a little more bandwidth with more people coming on.” 

The shop is, as of press time, continuing to only offer curbside pickup and doesn’t plan to fully reopen until at least Phase 3 of the safer-at-home order. “We’re thinking about things like not only opening up the store in a limited, safe way, but also how we can create virtual events or outside shopping with tents,” she says.

Both dystopian disaster novels and beach reads are popular right now, as well as puzzles, Jamie says. And the majority of customers are appreciative and gracious, even if they experience some delays in their orders being processed.

For Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews, another local bookstore, community is one of its foundational values. Since setting up shop on East Franklin Street last November, Jaime Sanchez, who owns the store with his wife, Miranda Sanchez, says they were too busy to build a website. They were finally able to launch an online platform soon after their store’s March closure.

The couple donated 20% of sales during the last weekend of May to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP in response to the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests. Even as the shop was making just a quarter of their typical sales at the time, Jaime says the donation was the right thing to do.

“Even though the business is hurting financially, we would not be supporting the values we hold true – not just as a business but also as a family – if we didn’t support our community in that way,” he says. “But our intent with this is to be here long term in downtown, so we’re doing everything we can to be sure from a financial perspective that we’re solid through this period and beyond.” 

To see the full list of Best of Chapel Hill 2020 winners, click here

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