Main Street, Small Town, COVID-USA
People think of COVID-19 as a contagion that hangs in clouds around loud talkers and lurks on doorknobs and handrails. But the recession it brought moves more like a forest fire: wiping out some businesses while leaving others barely touched. The Tribune has spent the past several months looking at the impacts on Portland. But what about the suburbs?
On a sunny day in August, we sent a newsroom team to Forest Grove, a college town set 25 miles west of Portland, to see how businesses were doing on Main Street, Small Town, USA. Had the twin demons of a pandemic and recession wiped out the business community?
The answer — as almost always — is a blend. Some places are doing fine, like the hardware store, the gun shop and Karen's Antiques. The customers at Boxers Pub 'n Grub still have jobs, most notably construction workers.
But other places are suffering, like the athletic store with few sports teams buying bats and jerseys by the dozen. The Good Intentions coffee shop, which has no patio, and the smoke shop that was replaced by a 7 Star convenience store, both took hits. And the germophobic storefront psychic had to go to appointment-only readings.
Main Street America had a problem long before the coronavirus arrived or Amazon rewrote the rules of retail. A year ago, it often was easier to avoid brick-and-mortar shopping. Today, it also can be healthier.
Everyone the Tribune talked to is struggling with uncertainty: when will the virus go away? When will life — and business — return to normal?
And what is the fate of Main Street, Small town, USA?
The gun shop
Business is brisk but government complicates the bottom line
Kurt Mueller used to have three colleagues at the tiny H&K Gun shop on Pacific Avenue. Now it's just him. He doesn't sell many new guns. He specializes in custom rifles and hard-to-find bullets. He's a gunsmith. He'll take a hand-carved wooden stock and add the metal parts to make a hunting rifle or shotgun.
The store has the clutter of half a century of business. Mueller apprenticed to the original owner, a World War II veteran. Now, with his eyes failing, he needs help, but doesn't want to retire because working keeps him feeling alive. On a recent morning a steady stream of young men came in for ammunition. Because of a shortage, he has to source foreign bullets and will only sell a box per person. Fifty Czech-made 9-millimeter shells go for $25.
Mueller is also landlord to the hair salon across the street, Absolute Hair. When they had to close and their income dipped to zero, he gave them a break on their rent.
In comparison, gun stores were classed as essential businesses. "Sales since March have been fine," he said. His only complaint is the shortage of ammunition. "It's been fun chasing it."
There's been a delay in government background checks for buyers, which, like unemployment benefits, go through an understaffed office in Salem. They can take days or months — it seems random to him.
"I called one morning at two minutes after eight," Mueller said. "I was second in line, according to the recording. An hour and a half later I hung up because I didn't have any more time to waste being second in line."
Mueller has noticed people are buying more guns, and those with guns are shooting them more.
"People have nothing better to do right now," he said. He doesn't try to explain why people want guns now, other than to say a lot of people like hunting or just shooting in the woods to relax.
Case in point, customer Deante Grinner comes in for a box of shells for his two guns. At home he has an AR-15 rifle and a Glock handgun. A Pacific University grad, he works in video production and he fell in love with camping and shooting in Oregon.
"It's more of a hobby," Grinner said outside the store. "And I think it's really important to protect your second amendment rights."
He said he has no interest in concealed carry, however. "I don't want to go to Safeway with the Glock," he said. "That's ridiculous. I don't even like to hunt."
His back-of-mind worry is about society and a breakdown in the food supply system. "I normally shop at the pawn shop. I come here because I like to support local businesses," he said.
Beer alone won't cut it; this crisis requires creativity
Ridgewalker Brewing, in Forest Grove's historic downtown, had to switch things up quickly when restrictions to slow the COVID-19 pandemic meant they no longer could host customers in their taproom.
They switched to a takeout-and-delivery model like many other businesses around the country, but co-owner Jeff Farrar decided to go the extra mile: for an extra $30, Farrar would deliver beer dressed up in a costume of the customer's choice. Options included the Batman, Mario and Luigi, or a knight.
"Being creative like that during COVID was a success because my goal is to direct people toward positivity, to keep them distracted," Farrar said.
The takeout-and-delivery business helped Ridgewalker ride out the first few months of the pandemic, but Farrar said they had to let almost all their employees go, and he and the two employees who stayed worked for free for a month to keep the business afloat.
The businesses clustered around Main Street came together to support each other, Farrar said. He made promotional videos to help let the community know they were open during the lockdown.
"We knew that we were in the same boat as everyone else," Farrar said. "All the other small businesses were like, 'Hey, let's do what we can to help each other out during this time.' Whether it's like, 'Hey, let's cross-utilize product,' or 'Let's have each other's back when it comes to trying to sell things.'
"We are community-based and we strive on helping others," he said. "It's not like a competition necessarily for us. We just love to make differences in people's lives."
Ridgewalker is open for dining-in now, with six tables inside and more outside on the patio. Farrar said the brewery is close to normal sales, and they've been able to hire 18 employees. But he said he's worried that business will suffer when it gets too cold to sit outside.
The business recovery specialist
Hand sanitizer and a hand up
Small businesses have been scrambling for help from the government, from five-figure Paycheck Protection Program loans to free hand sanitizer.
Ivette Heredia has been handing out the latter by the gallon, along with boxes of face masks and gloves, as part of her job as a specialist at the Forest Grove business recovery center on Main Street. The program is in space donated by Adelante Mujeres, a nonprofit that focuses on lifting up Latinas, although the business recovery center helps any type of business. For now, the tables and floor are cluttered with bags of supplies awaiting pick up. It feels like the OfficeMax equivalent of a food pantry.
Plexiglas screens are another hot item: they are needed not just in retail, but in any customer-facing business to protect the worker from the public. Construction and day care businesses have needed personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves. On a recent morning, a young man who runs a grocery store on the boundary of Aloha and Hillsboro took away two bags. Heredia spoke to him in Spanish and learned that his business is not doing well.
Think of it as a food pantry, but for businesses needing a hand.
"It's really unfortunate, just hearing some of the stories. We do the best that we can," Heredia said.
She also helps point people towards grants, loans and legal help to keep their businesses alive in the pandemic. She graduated from Pacific University in marketing and helps business owners with the rapid transition to digital, which has been forced by the pandemic, such as touchless point-of-sale systems and building brands on social media. Some people still need to fill in their Google My Business page.
Kerrie Andresen came to the site to pick up a bag of masks and hand sanitizer. Her pad printer business, Printek Industries, prints on plastic items such as knobs and levers for machines. She, her husband and two sons run it, so it's like being quarantined at work.
She said he learned about the Business Recovery Center from the city's economic development manager, Jeff King. "They have grants, and I got the payroll protection loan to start with, so I haven't qualified for anything else yet," she said. "But there's a few coming down the pipe that hopefully ..."
Andresen added, "If I don't, we're surviving. We just moved into a new building when this started, so it's been a little hard, but we'll survive."
Germs, adjusting and visions — "This thing ends in November"
The Psychic of Forest Grove, Daisy Stevens, took off for family in Pomona, California, when the pandemic hit, because of fear of the virus. She has three kids plus many immune-compromised people in her family.
"It was a bit was a struggle," Stevens said. She returned on July 6, and reopened her store, where she does palm, tarot and crystal/love readings in person. "Since I've been back, it's slowly getting back to normal. But it was the lowest it ever has been."
She still sees clients by appointment but is happy to read them over the phone.
"Honestly, I'm very nervous even when the phone call comes in," Stevens said. "I don't know what kind of person is coming in. I pray that each person has an understanding of my belief of cleanliness, and they usually never do. All my life I've always been a Lysol-slash-rubbing alcohol fanatic."
She comes into the office every day to water her plants, but she'd rather not expose herself. If clients want a palm reading, they have to wear gloves as well as a mask. Fortunately, even touching hands for a second is enough.
"My energy is just so strong that I could read them in a second. So, I have always required clean hands. I always require gloves now, just because people are dirty."
Stevens said Forest Grove suits her and her three children, whom she now intends to homeschool.
"In terms of money, we all have a little savings. But you know, we're all taking care of ourselves and adjusting basically," she said. "What I like about here that's different from California is that people are always willing to help you out, or they're always willing to look for work. And not so much wanting a handout, not that there's anything wrong with that because there isn't."
Stevens added: "I'm having a special right now, it's only a 20-minute session but it includes the palm, the tarot and the psychic crystal. That's normally an hour."
And she says she's optimistic. "Absolutely, things will go back to normal, for sure. As long as people just consider others."
And when is the virus going to end?
"Sweetie, the virus is ending in November of this year. It is. I ask God every morning to give me that inkling but that's as close as I've come."
'It's going to be a pretty tough winter'
Businesses in the small Washington County city took a hit from the pandemic's crushing effects. But the tight-knit community came together to support each other through difficult times.
Forest Grove, with a population estimated at around 24,000, is smaller than some universities in the state. As part of the tri-county area, Washington County is still in Phase 1 of reopening (the three phases each county must hit, as designated by Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority, to reopen the economy). The county has had around 3,700 total cases of the coronavirus reported since March.
Some Forest Grove businesses have taken a serious hit, said Juanita Lint, the Forest Grove and Cornelius Chamber of Commerce executive director. Retail and hospitality were primarily affected — she said hotel occupancy in the area is down to 50% from its usual 80% during the summer months.
"Since we rely on a tourist season to carry us through, it's going to be a pretty tough winter," she said.
Lint also owns a vineyard and tasting room in nearby Gaston. "We get an occasional tourist in the winery, but nothing like we would normally have during a summer."
Some restaurants struggled with the lowered capacity because they were so small to begin with. "There are some that only have three tables left," Lint said. "And you can't make a living off of three tables at a restaurant."
The hair salon
Things will work out, if the county doesn't close down again
Absolute Hair Boutique owner Mindy Nerheim said closing during the lockdown was "devastating."
She and many of the hairstylists who lease chairs at the salon didn't receive unemployment benefits until after coming back to work — and some of them are still waiting. "We band together. and I just reduced our bills as much as I could — shut electric, shut garbage — and then we just split the overhead and tried to stay afloat."
The salon opened on June 1, as soon as they were able to. Hairdressers spread out in Absolute Hair Boutique — everyone is masked, and portable dividers split stations up when people can't social distance.
Business is slowly picking up, and Nerheim said they are at about 70% of their old clients are returning. They also are getting new clients due to other salons closing.
For instance, Beaverton resident Lynsey Gamble came to Nerheim after four months without a cut because she said her "roots were so bad." Her old salon in Beaverton closed, and she came to Mindy on a recommendation from a friend who had been seeing Mindy for years, which Gamble said made her feel more comfortable.
But daily income at Absolute Hair Boutique is way down, she said, because they cannot have as many clients in at a time and they can't work on more than one client at a time, so they're working longer hours to make up the difference. "If you're willing to put in three more days you'll make the same income you did before," Nerheim said.
Her biggest fear is Gov. Kate Brown ordering lockdowns again.
"As long as we stay where we are, we'll make it. If she shuts us down again, it's gonna be hard."
Step back to the 1950s, but with a few pandemic precautions
Rudy's Barber Shop is suspended in time. The barber shop opened in 1950, and it hasn't changed much since — the walls are lined with stuffed fish and the chairs still have built-in ashtrays. Owner Sirena Meyer said customers often remark that it looks the same as it did when they came in as children.
But there have been some recent additions: a sign-in sheet in the doorway, contact-tracing forms that customers have to fill out when they sit down and disposable masks and aprons on the barbers.
Meyer said lockdown was "no vacation." She didn't file for unemployment for a month because she thought they could get through it, but she began to file once it became clear she wouldn't be able to reopen immediately. It never came through, she said.
The barber shop reopened on June 1, the first day of Washington County's Phase 1 or reopening. "That was a Monday. Normally we're closed on Monday, but I'm like, we've got to get back to work," Meyer said.
They took precautions immediately because her clientele skews older, Meyer said. For instance, Parker Adams, who came in for a cut on a recent Thursday, is 82. He said he came for a haircut within a week of reopening, and he wasn't concerned about coming back in. "The protocol was required," he said. "I felt fine."
Since reopening, Meyer said the barbershop is only getting around 50% of its pre-pandemic business. She's preparing financially to be locked down again.
Meyer added that her biggest concern is that she will be shut down because other businesses aren't following the state's guidelines.
"I would be upset, for sure, if I got shut down again," Meyer added. "I had to fork out a ton of money just to reopen and to have all the proper stuff I'm supposed to have. And so to think that I haven't made up that difference yet and to have another shutdown would be very upsetting."
The smoothie shop
Lots of community support for longstanding small businesses
Brothers Sam and Mike Marshall opened the smoothie shop Island Vibe in the midst of the pandemic. They also run Miget's Island Grill next door, which Mike owns with his wife.
They had planned to open earlier in the year, Mike said, but it took a little longer with everything happening this year. Business has been slower but is building up, he said.
They've been a part of the Forest Grove community for 30 years.
"One of the nice things about living in a small community like this is Forest Grove residents, lot of times, support small businesses," Sam said. "They've been really good at supporting us and keeping us here, and it's been a lot of fun to see the new faces coming in that we haven't seen in years."
Miget's didn't close during the lockdown, Mike said. "We just brought out the hand sanitizer, brought out the cleaning supplies, just cleaned everything inside all the time," he said. "We shut off our dining side and turned into more of a takeout place."
Business stayed pretty steady as customers looked for things to do, and they extended their hours to be open on Monday as well.
They aren't concerned about autumn, Mike said. "It's just another hurdle. We're all going to learn as we go anyway. We're changing all the time. You don't get used to things for long here with this going on."
The drive-in diner
Tough days for some, but others break sales records
Scottie's Drive-In occupies a special place in Forest Grove. The fast food diner opened in 1956, and it still has a lot of the same old-school style.
Emma Gray, 12, and Chase Disney, 13, came to Scottie's for lunch because Chase had never been. Emma said that Scottie's is her favorite restaurant, and the best thing on the menu is the milkshake — any flavor.
Anna Lohrer, one of Scottie's owners, married into the business. Her husband's family bought the diner in 1979.
Lohrer said the first few weeks of the pandemic were rough as they brainstormed ways to reopen. The eatery, which has always had brisk business at its takeout window, closed the dining room, switched card readers, added plexiglass between the employees and customers and bumped up their social media presence.
At first, she said, they were breaking even. But as the weather improved, business took off, and they're doing about the same amount of business as last year, though they're working fewer hours.
"There have been a couple of Friday nights where it's been a nice night and people are out, they want to get out of the house and so we have broken some records," she said. "We're incredibly thankful."
Lohrer said the community came together to support each other. "Everyone's being generous," Lohrer said. "Forest Grove has always been supportive of its small businesses."
As summer winds down and the weather gets worse, business always slows down, she said.
"I don't think we fear losing the business. It's been around for so long." she said. "It's more just keeping everybody safe and keeping everybody that relies on a paycheck from us."
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