This is the second part of the multi-part (I haven’t quite decided how many parts yet) series I will be writing about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected different groups of people. The first article I wrote was about stay-at-home parents, and I originally expected this article to be similar to the first. However, I was greatly surprised. These entrepreneurs have to worry not only about their own work and livelihood, but the health and well-being of their customers and employees. Talking to these people and sharing their stories made me more appreciative of the dedication and work ethic that small business owners possess.
I started by reaching out to businesses near and dear to my heart, in my hometown of Maplewood, NJ, specifically Maplewood Village. Words is a family-owned bookstore that has been open for twelve years, and one of my favorite places in town. Jonah Zimiles, owner of the shop, explained what Words is all about. “We have two missions: to be a community hub for reading and literacy and to do vocational training for people with intellectual disabilities and autism,” he said. Words closed in March, even before Governor Phil Murphy ordered them to, and reopened several months later for curbside pickup and delivery. They also currently have a desk outside the store where customers can pick up online orders.
Zimiles explained how the Words owners and crew have been handling the pandemic. He said that business was slower and orders were down, but more importantly, “we’ve been keeping our eyes on what the priority is, which is following the guidelines of our federal state and local authorities, and bearing in mind that the most important thing is to make sure that everyone is staying safe. And while doing that, doing our best to keep the business afloat and getting people books.”
I also spoke with Kimaya Salaskar Thakrar, owner of Kimaya Kama in Maplewood Village. The store started out selling mostly women’s clothing and accessories and has expanded to men’s accessories, gifts, home goods, skincare, and more. Her business is doing well, she told me: “We reopened in the first or second week in July. Since then it’s been a good flow of people but not super crowded, everyone is very respectful and wears a mask.” It took Thakrar a while to get here, however. Her store was closed for months after quarantine began. “Right at the beginning, just not knowing what the future held for us or what was going to happen, was really scary,” she explained. She soon started doing online ordering and delivery. Her online store has also expanded greatly since March.
After reaching out to Maplewood business owners, I expanded my parameters a bit. I talked to Stacey Staaterman, a leadership and career coach based in West Orange, NJ, and Christina Helms, who runs Three Birds Yoga Studio in Florham Park, NJ.
Helms agreed with Zimiles in terms of safety precautions. Yoga involves lots of breathing, moving together, and usually some sweating. It’s not quite COVID friendly. “The number one thing we’re supposed to do is keep everyone safe. Nothing is worth jeopardizing someone’s health,” said Helms. “Even though we know people want to come in and do yoga and have that community, we can never take the risk of having someone get sick in our studio. There’s a heavy weight of responsibility on our shoulders.”
Helms and Staaterman reported almost exact opposite trends in their business since quarantine began. “There was a pretty significant uptake from individual clients, who were like, ‘I have to figure out what’s going on with my life,’” said Staaterman. “I’m happy to be a support system for more people right now. Many of us are asking big questions about how we are living and spending our time. The pandemic has triggered an existential crisis for many people.”
Helms lamented the recent decline in business since the beginning of the pandemic. “We used to have about 40 in-person classes. We cut the schedule to about 27 or 28 classes on Zoom. At first, we lost a couple of members who didn’t want to do it virtually, but at this point, I’d say we’ve lost about 40-45% of our memberships,” she said. “[My co-owner and I] are paying ourselves a lot less and hiring fewer teachers.”
However, she also expressed immense gratitude towards her business and clients. “I know that a big part of what we provided, in addition to exercise and yoga classes, was community,” she said. “People made friends at the studio. We offered vinyasa (‘flow’ yoga) but also a lot of restorative and gentle yoga and meditation. We had lots of people there who never felt comfortable in another studio, people who were older or had physical limitations.”
Both Helms’ and Staaterman’s business models are catered toward guiding people towards better mental health. “It’s been interesting, it’s an amazing time for coaching and mental health because everyone [is stressed.] There’s stress because of the complexity of this crisis, and it’s not just one issue; it’s many for a lot of people,” said Staaterman. “[Coaching] is a great way for people to find support that’s about taking action!”
Helms explained, “People have always looked toward yoga, meditation, and mind body practice for a bunch of different reasons, mental health included. The meditation group has grown since the pandemic… People thought maybe meditation would help them with all the anxiety and uncertainty.”
The COVID pandemic has not only affected entrepreneurs’ businesses, but undoubtedly their personal wellbeing and mental health as well. Helms deals with the strain of the pandemic similarly to her students. “I have a serious meditation practice. I’m a student of Buddhism,” she said. “It’s just a practice of taking things literally day by day knowing that I don’t have any control over what happens.” Thakrar empathized with other businesses dealing with economic difficulties during the pandemic. “Through it all I know is small businesses like me don’t have a budget for things like this,” she said.
All of the small business owners I talked to were astoundingly polite and demonstrated a great deal of care and compassion for the wellbeing of their customers. Most of them apologized for complaining about any hardships they were having and told me how grateful they were for community support.
Check out their businesses below, and especially during this trying time, don’t forget to shop small!
Kimaya Kama: 168 Maplewood Ave, Maplewood NJ
Words Bookstore: 179 Maplewood Ave, Maplewood NJ
Three Birds Yoga Studio: 177 Columbia Turnpike 2nd floor, Florham Park, NJ