Durham small businesses navigate effects of COVID-19

Hannah Donahue

Many small businesses across the country are struggling amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but there are some Durham staples that are finding a way to survive. 

“I think this area can weather the storm,” says co-owner of Scorpion’s Bar and Grill Frank Silva. After running a keystone feature of Durham’s nightlife for many years, he’s optimistic about the impacts of COVID-19. 

The sentiment across many businesses is one of cautious optimism.  

According to a recent survey, 48% of local businesses across the country closed temporarily between the months of March and April. Virtually every street on the main street of campus temporarily shut its doors this past spring.  

Sarah Grandy, owner of Main Street Makery, was one of those businesses. “We were all a little bit shell shocked,” she said. “It’s interesting to look back … on March and think, oh my gosh, we had no idea how things were going to shape.”  

The shutdown forced her business model the change. She decided to open an online store with Katherine Norling, the owner of Van-Claus designs so they could still operate during the worst parts of the pandemic. “We spent hours in here taking pictures and uploading that to a whole new sales platform,” says Grandy. “It was almost like opening a whole separate business.”  

Now both Main Street Makery and Van-Claus designs are open for walk-ins with a few key changes 

“We didn’t reopen as we thought we would.” Norling says, “We’re still limiting the people who come in, our days and hours are still limited, but our online platform is still going and people are still using it.”  

Not all Durham businesses were able to similarly transition. Norling is aware of that fact.  

“Watching 10,12 downtown businesses close during that time has made us feel incredibly fortunate and lucky that the community supported us through that,” said Norling. According to her they’ve received overwhelming support from the community and people seeking out Durham businesses with the intent of shopping locally.  

This is a sentiment echoed by Grandy, “Local organizations, sporting clubs and groups that we have supported in the past … [are] coming back around and saying we’re going to support you.” she said. She is especially optimistic for the coming month, saying, “as a retail business we’re heading into our busiest quarter.” 

Frank Silva is also optimistic. Last semester, he felt the blow of having to close for what would typically be their most profitable months. Now that they’re open for business, having students sent home again in the fall presents less of a danger. According to Frank, having students return to campus and renew their leases in town guarantees a certain number of customers. Even without the prospect of students living nearby, during the summer time Scorpion’s reported an oddly profitable few months.  

Others, like Franz Guest, owner of Franz’s Food, also found the summertime to be good business despite the circumstances. He said, “In the summertime, when students are supposedly not here, they’re always here but in different capacities.” 

Even though he believes University of New Hampshire (UNH) students make up over half of all his business, he said “I have a lot of customers who were once UNH students and now live in the area …I have a decent year round-business.” 

That is not to say Durham is completely in the clear. Norling offered a sobering reminder. “I think on a good day anyone who works in retail is always worried” She says, “so add the pandemic in and you just—you don’t know.”