The Boutique Blues

I don’t remember which of us asked, “What do we do,” or how many times we asked it.

I had that conversation—or conversations?—with Amanda, my wife and business partner, all the way back in March when it seemed like everyone from the White House to my house was just looking around, unsure of what was going to happen and how to respond.

Coronavirus was either coming, or it was here. It would either kill millions of Americans, or it would be like a bad flu season.

Large employers were sending employees home to work remotely, school corporations were scrambling to prepare for seemingly inevitable coronavirus-related closures, and we all rushed out to buy hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Businesses were left to decide if and how they should operate.

We spoke with our employees and instituted simple sterilization practices to keep them and customers safe. We, along with every other business in America, emailed our customers to tell them how were responding and that we’d be open as usual until further notice. But foot traffic fell off a cliff and within days, maybe longer—my sense of time is distorted—thousands of dollars in expected sales became just tens of dollars of revenue. Like that, Homespun: Modern Handmade’s brick and mortar business had crumbled.

The magic of Homespun is in customers turning products over in their hands, learning about how they’re made, and why, and by whom. That doesn’t translate perfectly to an online shop, no matter how well written the product description is. But we couldn’t in good conscience keep the physical store open to customers. And we didn’t have the money to operate as normal when sales dropped to zero almost overnight.

That’s because Homespun relies on sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas to give us a cushion for months where we lose money the following year. Spring is when business rebounds, in May especially. In a normal year, at least.

The magic of Homespun is in customers turning products over in their hands, learning about how they’re made, and why, and by whom. That doesn’t translate perfectly to an online shop, no matter how well written the product description is.

We laid off all of our part-timers over the phone because we didn’t want to risk our staff’s health for that meeting. Our full-time employees agreed to a drastically reduced work-from-home schedule to help us become an online-only operation until further notice. And we had to do it remotely, with three kids in the house and no school, daycare, or babysitter, all while trying to figure out what aid package we needed to apply for and where and how. I had to try to do my day job, too.

With the loss of income from Homespun, and the possible loss of the business altogether, I spent a few days beating myself up. I felt guilt for laying people off, for not having six months of operating expenses and six months of living expenses in the bank. For not being able to keep my family on a schedule, for not having the level of groceries and supplies we needed to shelter in place indefinitely. For not being everywhere all the time, doing everything right and predicting the future. For not being able to “crush it” at my job while juggling … all of this.

It was crazy-making but I let myself feel it, and aside from an almost daily morning cry, I am now at peace with my powerlessness. Amanda swings between acute bouts of anxiety and feelings of relief. We don’t want the store to be shut down, but if it has to, we’ll catch our breath for the first time in a decade.

It’s hard to talk about owning a business, mostly because the people who understand what you’re going through are too busy to talk because they’re running their own business. And because when we do start talking about the stress of being responsible to employees, vendors, and customers, about servicing debt that is multiples of your salary, friends and family members start having a panic attack on your behalf. It’s normal for us, and besides—we’re still operating, so how much do we really have to complain about?

Products on Homespun: Modern Handmade's shelves.
Homespun: Modern Handmade’s brick and mortar business began to crumble in the days before Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb announced a stay-at-home order for all Hoosiers.

As I walk my dogs down the Cultural Trail, maintaining as much distance as I can from everyone else, I see guys working shoulder to shoulder on the Bottleworks project, a $300 million reuse of the Coca-Cola bottling factory on Mass Ave into a hotel, office space, apartments, condos, and entertainment spots. I’m happy they are still employed, but I am scared for their health. I am hopeful that the development will create a tide that lifts all boats in the 800 and 900 blocks of Mass Ave, but I am scared that some of us will drown before the first phase opens.

As I write this, all of the federal relief money has been used and there’s a plan (but no promise) for more. Our Economic Injury Disaster Loan application was under review the day the federal government announced that there was no more money available. We weren’t sure if we were eligible for the Payroll Protection Program (we are) because we let most of our staff go weeks before we knew what our options might be. We’ll see what happens when more money is available.

Like many COVID-19 victims, our business had pre-existing conditions. Every business has underlying problems, some self-inflicted, some not. We’re no different. We were doing our best to stay afloat until Bottleworks opened. Now we’re doing what we can with the time and resources we have to ensure that Homespun: Modern Handmade survives the summer. But we have to be clear-eyed about the possibility that it won’t.