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Local small businesses face reality of shutdown

  • Jess McCulloch serves soup at Harlow's Pub in Peterborough last weekend during a pop-up sale at the restaurant, which has otherwise been closed due to COVID-19. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Jess McCulloch serves soup at Harlow's Pub in Peterborough last weekend during a pop-up sale at the restaurant, which has otherwise been closed due to COVID-19. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Jess McCulloch takes soup orders at Harlow's Pub in Peterborough last weekend during a pop-up sale at the restaurant. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 5/4/2020 4:32:07 PM

Susan Voss and her husband Gary are like a lot of small business owners, living paycheck to paycheck.

But when Voss closed her Route 101 Peterborough-based gift shop, The Black Swan, on March 18 there was no longer a paycheck coming in. And soon, the phone stopped ringing for Gary’s home inspection business, leaving the couple with no income, but plenty of expenses still needing to be paid.

“It’s been tough,” Voss said. “I don’t have a clue what the right thing to do is. It’s been a really interesting five or six weeks.”

With mounting costs associated with her store and no clear picture of when and if she’ll be able to open, Voss isn’t sure what the future holds. When Gov. Chris Sununu outlined the businesses that can reopen under certain restrictions and precautions, Voss was understandably not one of them.

“I have an entire store filled with things that people don’t need,” Voss said.

The uncertainty of everything has been weighing on Voss, so she decided to do something to keep her mind and her hands busy.

Her younger sister, who lives in New York, was making masks and Voss knew she could do that. So she started making some for the Dartmouth-Hitchcock clinic she goes to in Keene and when she was done, Voss had 150 masks. She posted a picture of her table covered with masks on Facebook and soon she started getting requests.

“It’s an important thing that’s kept me feeling purposeful,” Voss said.

As of Friday, Voss had made 700 masks for organizations in New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as families and individuals. She got a single mask order from someone in California.

“I don’t even know how she got my name,” Voss said.

Even though Voss is out of work and has yet to receive an unemployment check, she isn’t charging for her masks. But if someone wants to pay, she directs them to make a donation to End 68 Hours of Hunger-ConVal.

“It’s about people helping people and paying it forward,” Voss said.

Voss said retail isn’t what it used to be in the early 2000s, when her business was doing very well. It has been more difficult in recent years, leading to less money going into savings. She always sets aside money to buy new product to keep the store’s inventory fresh, but since being forced to close down, Voss has dipped into what money she had for other expenses.

“There’s not a lot in the pot to draw from,” she said.

She put her orders for summer, fall and Christmas on hold for now, because for one she doesn’t know when she will be able to open and isn’t set up for online ordering.

“I had no idea how long this would go,” Voss said. “Do I order product? And then get stuck with it if we have to close down again. Are people going to shop?”

The unknown of what the future holds is the most difficult.

“I don’t know how much longer I can go,” Voss said. “Not much longer and I’ve been here 21 years.”

Voss said it’s been frustrating trying to secure the federal money available for small business owners through the Payroll Protection Program, having applied in both rounds only to come up empty.

“It’s extremely frustrating and I’m sick and tired of hearing about how beautifully everything has gone,” she said.

She has three employees who were laid off, two of which filed for and received unemployment.

As someone with an underlying medical condition and over the age of 65, Voss worries about when she is given the go ahead to reopen and what it will look like.

“I’m not anxious to put myself out there,” she said.

Kari Lindstrom

When Lindstrom had to close The Melamine Cup in Jaffrey, there was a lot going through her head.

She was fortunate that she didn’t have any employees to worry about, but as a self-employed individual with a family at home, whose husband is also self-employed, Lindstrom knew she had to do something to keep money – no matter the amount – coming in.

“I had to think really quickly about how I could bring in some income,” Lindstrom said. “We’re two self-employed people so that’s when I had to use my smarts and be savvy.”

She started doing curbside order pickups on Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon and so far it’s been pretty busy. She has been offering vintage mystery boxes for $25 that includes the cost of shipping and a value of $20 to $25 for its contents.

“They’ve been selling like wildfire,” Lindstrom said.

She sold 40 in the first 24 hours and had done four rounds of the vintage boxes so far, which have been going all over the country, she said.

On Wednesday nights from 7 to 7:30 p.m., Lindstrom has been taking to Facebook to showcase what’s for sale in the store. Lindstrom said a lot of sales have come through her Facebook live events and attributes that to her huge Facebook following.

“I’m not making what I was before, but without that I wouldn’t be able to do anything,” Lindstrom said.

This is the time of year when The Melamine Cup gets busy and having to close the doors made for a stressful situation. Unemployment benefits have helped and Lindstrom was able to secure a PPP loan that will help carry the shop for three months.

“When this first happened, we didn’t know there would be unemployment for the self-employed,” she said.

Thanks to help from the federal government and state, Lindstrom is optimistic for the future of her store that she opened more than seven years ago.

“I’m pretty creative and resourceful,” she said. “I know I’ll survive.”

Dave Szehi

Early on it was not easy for the Harlow’s Pub owner. Szehi doesn’t consider employees just as people that work in his restaurant, but more of family. And when he had to lay off his staff of 44 after closing down the restaurant, Szehi was at a loss.

“I wish I had the money to help everybody,” Szehi said.

But like many restaurant owners, Szehi wasn't in a position to help those he counted on day in and day out.

“We live on a pretty narrow line of make it or break it every day,” Szehi said.

Under Gov. Sununu’s order that mandated restaurants to operate in a take out only manner, Szehi could have stayed open to bring some money in, but with asthma and concerns about being able to properly keep everyone safe, he couldn’t justify remaining open.

Szehi explained the first few weeks as “a roller coaster of ups and downs.”

But things are looking up now. Szehi recently began pop-up takeout opportunities – including one scheduled for Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. – and so far, they have gone well, he said. Under Sununu’s orders, Szehi can open his patio for outdoor dining beginning May 18 and plans to do so, although it’s hard to tell right now how it will all work.

He did receive word recently that he qualified for a PPP loan and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, but that he’d only be moving forward with the EIDL because under the PPP parameters, Szehi wouldn’t meet the requirements of maintaining his staff to have the loan forgiven. And he can’t take on a loan that needs to be repaid.

Szehi said he received $10,000 from the EIDL program and that has allowed him to buy product and get a few things fixed to help the restaurant stay operational.

What helped get him through was a GoFundMe fundraiser set up by some patrons that has raised more than $22,000 since it was set up on March 17. Szehi is appreciative of the support, but it came with mixed emotions.

“I don’t want to feel like a charity case,” he said. “I know I’m not the only one. It’s hard to accept the help when I know everyone needs help. But I’m extremely grateful for the support. We would not have been able to make it otherwise.”

Szehi said he had opted for a more expansive insurance policy, but was disappointed to learn that this type of disruption wasn't covered.

“This is exactly the kind of thing we paid extra for,” he said.

While things finally seem to be moving in the right direction, Szehi knows it will be a slow process to get back to the Harlow’s everyone is used to.

“It will be a long time before we’re back going full steam,” Szehi said. “I think we’re starting to come out of the rubble, but it’s kind of like starting over when we were downstairs. It will take a while and we’ll see how it goes.”

Richard Putnam

For the last 43 years, Putnam has owned and operated Putnam’s Clothing on Main Street in Wilton.

At times Putnam has employed others at the store, but “I’ve worked alone for the last 15 years,” he said. So when he decided to close the store on March 20 before the orders were put in place for non-essential businesses to cease operations, it made it a little easier.

Putnam said the closing came at the urging of his family, who worried that at his age he would be at potential risk for serious complications if infected with coronavirus.

Putnam said he is open by appointment because with other people’s personal items in the store “I can’t in good conscience close the doors completely.”

In recent years, Putnam has been thinking more and more about retirement and put the business up for sale almost a year ago. While the shutdown has given him “a taste of what it will be like,” Putnam has no thought of shutting down.

“If we’re allowed to get back to work, I will,” he said. “We’re taking it a day at a time, a week at a time.”


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