By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
For Montclair Local
It’s a familiar sight to anyone who spends time in Montclair: countless visitors to the unique boutiques, eating handmade ice cream, sitting in fine restaurants, walking around and window-shopping.
But a year after the statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses, and through the continuing coronavirus pandemic, things seem slower — at least on the surface. Several stores have been emptied. Foot traffic isn’t what it was. The marquee at the Wellmont Theater hasn’t advertised a new show since March of last year.
The pandemic hit the economy hard, with retail small businesses trying to stay afloat by adapting to the new normal and reinventing themselves to continue serving the community.
“The pandemic really threw our business for a loop. While we did have an online presence, we had great walking traffic and consistent in-person clientele,” said Kristen Zachares, owner and founder of The Eclectic Chic Boutique, which sells handmade, locally sourced and small-batch goods and conducts craft classes.
“But once the pandemic hit and we saw a decrease in traffic, we had to pivot towards online sales and craft classes. And once the lockdown occurred for nonessential businesses, we were working on our online store and social media pretty much full time.”
Eclectic Chic found, as it adapted to the new health regulations — nonessential stores were shut entirely at first, but are now limited to 50% of normal capacity, after a series of gradual increases — that customers were understanding.
“We also had to start offering curbside pickup and local delivery, as that allowed some of our more high-risk clientele to continue to shop with us,” Zachares said.
But it wasn’t just about maintaining existing customers. Eclectic Chic found new opportunities as it rethought its practices.
“Going virtual opened us up to so many new opportunities, and we want to continue to grow the relationships that we have built during the pandemic,” Zachares said. “We got requests from companies all over the world to do craft classes and special product orders.”
They weren’t alone.
Montclair Book Center on Glenridge Avenue, which specializes in used books and has been open since 1984, already had an online bookstore. It found with people reading more, those sales went up, Maureen Disimile, one of the managers at the store, said.
The bookstore expects to continue focusing on online services even after the pandemic is over, but will continue offering in-store services while following health regulations.
Going virtual has helped several businesses to stay afloat and continue bringing in revenues, to the point where some are running online-only, such as In The Company of Yum, a former pop-up bakery now offering its treats online, or Styled Blu Events, an event planner launching a home décor product line. Rose and Co. Candlemakers, a venture through which a Montclair student has sold candles since 2015, has always operated online.
When the lockdown for nonessential businesses was lifted, other stores came up with creative ways to keep their enterprises running as well.
DollyMoo, a small boutique on Glenridge Avenue offering handmade beauty products focusing on wellness, added a pickup window, decorated according to the seasons and designed to ensure safe curbside pickups.
Just Kidding Around, a toy store on Bloomfield Avenue open since 2002, had to stop offering in-store shopping. But in addition to selling goods line, it offers customers the chance to connect via video chat for a personalized shopping experience.
“We started this service for over a year now, July to November, which our customers really love,” Chelsea Smith, one of the store managers, said. “Neighbors have been very supportive of this, and we will continue offering this service even after the pandemic is over.”
Outdoor spaces have been used by businesses — including gyms and dance studios that conducted classes in Crane Park through the Montclair Center Business Improvement District Fresh Air Fitness Program.
“There’s a lot of looking at public space, and how public space is used,” said Jason Gleason, executive director of the Montclair Center BID. “It’s almost like the public is reclaiming their space again.”
Gleason said he recognizes public spaces aren’t just, or even primarily, for businesses — and understands there should be a balance between business use and other public use. But he’s hoping to find more ways to work with township leaders on doing so.
“Public space is not generally a space where commerce is done,” Gleason said. “Finding those spaces where we can work together is mutually beneficial.”
Restaurants on Church Street have been using sidewalks to accommodate outdoor dining. Some, like Fresco da Franco, have used outdoor enclosures like bubble tents.
Even though most businesses were able to adapt to the new normal, other businesses have not been able to recover.
Gleason said that between the start of the pandemic and the end of 2020, there was high turnover in Montclair’s business community — but plenty of innovation and energy. Overall, the BID, which encompasses hundreds of businesses downtown, ended the year with one more member business than it had at the start of March 2020.
Paul Giordano, president of Uptown Montclair, a volunteer-run organization funded by businesses across Upper Montclair, saw a similar pattern.
“Each business has been affected differently, and we have been trying to help them navigate resources such as aid and grant requests,” Giordano said. “We saw a couple of businesses close down, but new businesses open as well. Every exiting business had another one open.”
Giordano said his organization saw a decrease in funding, as many businesses have not been able to pay their dues — which he said he understands, as businesses continue their recovery. Yet the organization is hoping to be able to do more with less funding.
“We have learned a lot from 2020,” Giordano said. “We have a better understanding of the situation and a better understanding of what the businesses need, like rebuilding their brand and recovering.”
There’s plenty of optimism and initiative ahead for both business groups. For example, Uptown Montclair is working on a street beautification project that aims to bring out-of-towners back to Montclair. Giordano said that would include expanding on plantings done during the pandemic, and the group is looking for donors to help support the effort.
And Montclair Center BID is working through a site called BeyondMain.com to get brick-and-mortar shops a website retail presence. As of March of this year, more than 30 businesses have signed on through a grant-funded initiative, and BID is hoping to see 100 in place by year’s end.
Gleason cited the example of Ethiopian restaurant Mesob’s presence on the site — where customers can purchase items including coffee beans from Ethiopia the restaurant has roasted in-house. “It’s not something you’d typically see in a retail site,” he said.
And Gleason stressed that when purchasing from local businesses through the site, “75 cents of that dollar stays local.”
“With Amazon, it’s virtually zero,” he said.