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East Side Mags owner Jeff Beck said he saw a lot of customers who were trying to support local small businesses in the weeks leading up to New Jersey’s shelter-in-place mandate.
COURTESY JEFF BECK

by Andrew Garda and Gwen Orel
orel@montclairlocal.news
garda@montclairlocal.news

On Saturday, March 21, 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy signed Executive Order #107, directing non-essential businesses to shut their doors and New Jerseyans to stay at home until further notice.

As of March 21, only “essential business” such as supermarkets, pharmacies and medical facilities have been open, with a curfew of 8 p.m.

The non-essentials — the booksellers, gift shops, boutiques —  that many shoppers frequent and love in Montclair are now at risk as overhead mounts up, workers are told to stay home, and sales have stopped.

Tuesday, March 24, Murphy issued an order allowing some categories of shops, including cell phone stores and garden stores, to re-open.

“It’s probably going to be pretty bad,” Jeff Beck, owner of East Side Mags comics shop on South Fullerton, said. 

Beck can still ship and offers a curbside pickup for customers, but expects a drop-off in business without the walk-ins. Further complicating things, Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. — a distributor serving retailers in North America and worldwide — told shops on Tuesday, March 24 that they will suspend delivery of new comics as of April 1.

Beck and other retailers can still order previously printed comics and trade paperbacks, but the lack of new content makes the situation even harder and could lead readers to digital comics apps, which could make bringing them back difficult.

With the library closed, Watchung Booksellers is offering curbside pickup and delivery for local readers. On Saturday before they closed their doors, owner Margot Sage-EL said there was an uptick of customers coming to stock up on books.

While people can still order ebooks and audiobooks through the store website, she still expects there to be a significant drop-off in sales.

The reality is that many of Montclair’s unique boutiques are browsing stores. “People come in and want to discover things, poke around, pick up a journal or a card. They come in for recommendations, talk through their orders so we can make recommendations,” Sage-EL said about the book store. “This new world of calling in and ordering a specific book is very different for us and different for our customers.”

businesses
The employees of Joyist, an organic café in Upper Montclair, took pride in helping ease the pressure on local supermarkets by providing their customers healthy food, says owner Kacy Erdelyi.
Courtesy Kacy Erdelyi

Set up much like a coffee shop, Joyist offers places to sit, but many customers tend to come in and order to go. The store also had an online ordering system and delivery in place before the crisis. For Kacy Erdelyi, owner of Joyist, the transition was a little easier for her customer base. 

“So, compared to what I’ve seen with a lot of other businesses, I feel really lucky that we were able to not just stay open, but do pretty well for the first little stretch of this,” Erdelyi said.

At Beck’s comics shop, he felt customers were going out of their way to support local businesses with the shutdown looming.

“I thought this [past] week was going to be really bad [but] a lot of people showed up for support,” Beck said on Saturday. “Every single person who came this week had something to say about small business in the current climate. So, people are aware, people know what’s going on, at least on the surface. I mean obviously I don’t have my financial book out on the counter for people to flip through, but right, they know that it’s impactful.”

Beck was trying to do his part to support his neighboring business owners as well. He made sure to shop local where he could.

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Some owners had already closed down prior to Saturday, such as Tierney’s Tavern, a Montclair fixture and local watering place since 1934. Restaurants and bars were ordered closed on March 16, the day before St. Patrick’s Day, when Tierney’s would normally be packed. Owner Dan Tierney said they were unsure how to order food that, if unused, would go to waste. Before they closed, the staff was working on getting rid of the food they did have.

“We’ve made a few donations to Toni’s Kitchen, and Grace [his sister] has been volunteering over there too,” Tierney said. “They are Montclair saviors right now. A lot of restaurants have been donating to them. I’m happy to see not a lot of food wasted.”

businesses
An empty Valley Road in Upper Montclair is an unusual sight at 6:30pm on a Monday but for now is the new normal.
ANDREW GARDA/STAFF

For Montclair store owners, what will happen to their employees is weighing large on their minds. It all depends on things that are out of their control, such as government assistance, the length of the shutdown and whether they can get rent or mortgage relief.

Mike Guerriero, the owner of two Gelati by Mike shops, had to lay off 48 of his 54 workers.

“Some are part-time, some full-time. It’s a mixture of kids and adults. The first impact is the college kids and high school kids, as some have older parents that may be vulnerable,” he said.

Last year, Guerriero said he employed 70 people in total. “We’re about 60 percent down from where we should be in March,” he said. 

Spring, especially around Easter, is usually one of their busiest times, but the shutdown, compounded by the fact that people will not be celebrating other life events, will affect the business for months to come, he said. 

“There is no way to recover later on in the back end, with graduations down, people not celebrating birthdays,” Guerriero said. “That’s a signature part of our business. The way things roll, I anticipate being 30-40 percent down if this drags on.”

His business is a bit of a bellwether for local shops, he said. Guerriero pays above minimum wage and offers health insurance, but keeps a lower overhead because he doesn’t take more than a general manager’s salary.

“With low overhead and low amount of cash to operate, if we start feeling issues it will be bad for everyone,” he said.

Beck is also worried about his employees, whom he considers family and who have been with the comics shop for three or four years.

It’s too soon to know what the shutdown will mean for them.

“That’s something that is too fresh for me to have a real kind of concrete answer for, unfortunately,” he said. “I don’t know. We’re going to see, but if they do file for unemployment, I’m certainly not going to block them from it. They’ve got families to support. They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do too.”

Joyist owner Erdelyi said her employees were proud of bringing a little normalcy during a stressful time, providing their neighbors with food when it’s hard to get.

“Not everyone can go to the grocery store and not everyone knows how to cook,” she said. “We have a really healthy restaurant, so we feel really proud that we’re trying to keep people healthy at a time like this.”

An empty store but plenty of product will be what many Montclair small businesses need to deal with in the face of COVID-19 forced closures.
COURTESY JEFF BECK

She said she’s proud of her fellow restaurant owners who are staying open to provide an essential resource and of the employees who are putting themselves at a slightly increased risk to help.

Erdelyi, like many store owners, is hoping for the government’s help. “If a small business is closed, it seems that that small business should not have to pay any recurring expenses,” she said, adding it would almost be like freezing time while the pandemic is being dealt with.

“That would, first of all, encourage businesses to close, which might help from a safety perspective, and would also be really tangible to say, ‘Well, I guess I’m not making revenue from these months, but I’m also not losing money and I have the money I need to reopen,’ so that businesses can come back.”