Will Coronavirus Destroy America's Beloved Small Businesses? - The New York Times

Will Coronavirus Destroy America's Beloved Small Businesses? - The New York Times

Will Coronavirus Destroy America's Beloved Small Businesses? - The New York Times

Posted: 19 Apr 2020 05:46 PM PDT

By pandemic standards, Du Jour Bakery is a success story. On a block of darkened establishments in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, its lights alone are on, powered by the fealty of its neighborhood customers and the grit of its owner, Vera Tong. Her resolve could throw off sparks.

So what, practically speaking, does it mean to be a small business trying to survive in a plague? In Vera's case, it means suddenly running something that's closer to an ambitious bake sale than overstuffed bakery. The glass case at Du Jour was once a pirate's chest of outrageous delectables, including dozens of muffins the size of baseballs, my personal vice. Now it has 15. On Wednesday, Vera threw all of them away. No one wanted muffins that day.

It means Vera has three employees, where she once had 10. It means she does all the baking herself, where she once had another baker, now living back home with his parents. It means she's taking in 40 percent of what she once did, though she'll still turn a modest profit this month if her landlords accept $5,000 in rent, rather than the customary $8,800. (So far, no. They're tacking the balance onto next month's bill.)

Many of us are now privately cataloging our attachments to the local businesses we can't bear to see collapse. Du Jour, just steps from my home, is at the top of my list. To chat with Vera is to get a painful grasp of what small-business owners face — will they even last until the "new normal"? If they do, will the new normal be survivable? — and what communities will lose if they don't endure.

Among the intangible losses: A vast network of cherished spaces that sociologists refer to as "third places" — those beloved destinations between home and work where ideas are exchanged, relationships are forged, and communities are strengthened. Think cafes. Bars. Bookstores.

Let's start with the basics. President Trump's relief effort to aid small businesses has not been "a tremendous success" and "executed flawlessly," as he still maintained on Friday. American banks had to turn away hundreds of thousands of small businesses for Paycheck Protection Program loans these last two weeks, suggesting that the additional $300 billion in the proposed next round of legislation most likely still won't be enough.

Vera didn't get a nickel. She tried to access the money for four straight days through JPMorgan Chase. She got nothing but a plague of error messages. "The site was crashing," she explained. Adding insult to injury: Large restaurant chains, including Ruth's Chris steak houses and Potbelly sandwich shops and Shake Shack, dipped their snouts in the trough and got $40 million. The program was meant for small businesses. A last-minute loophole was scribbled into the bill on their behalf.

If mom-and-pop establishments like Vera's close, the psychic and economic devastation can't be underestimated. Small businesses employ — and recirculate money — locally. In recent years, an increasing number of them have been owned by women and minorities. They define and protect neighborhoods. They're anchors and harbors all at once.

Our neighborhoods would otherwise be moonscapes of Burger Kings and Dunkin' Donuts.

The greatest perversity of all? It's the most community-minded souls who create the most lovable third places. Vera knows your regular order and discreetly slips you leftovers at the end of the week. Even now, she's making sure she's still baking vegan and gluten-free options for those who want them. When customers linger briefly and make conversation, she reassures them that her cafe is OK, in the same poignant and peculiar way that the bereaved often console those who are supposed to be consoling them.

"If someone wants to talk to and ask how you are," she told me, "you don't want to shut your customers down."

And she feels tremendous obligation to those who work for her. While the message we're getting from President Trump is that it's every state for itself — the kind of message that gives unconscious license to be personally selfish (would Americans hoard if we had a president who urged unity?) — she feels the moral weight of mutual commitments.

"I feel responsible for my guys," she said. "They're my family. I can offer them steady days."

Two of her three employees are now the sole breadwinners in their families. One, Jose, told me he and his parents now eat two meals per day. "We eat a lot of rice and beans," he said. "When we get sick of it, we scramble an egg." And he considers himself lucky. His family is more secure than others.

Provided, that is, that Du Jour stays in business. It's the only open business on its block. Keeping it that way requires the kind of endurance that makes emotional and physical stamina almost indistinguishable. Vera gets up at dawn, bakes her pastries, closes, cleans up and shops at the local grocery store for the next day's lunch-special ingredients, because she no longer has enough customers to order those items in bulk. Then she goes home to her rented apartment above the shuttered bar next door and spends two hours filling out forms for loans.

"You have to keep a bit of a robot brain," she told me. "Otherwise you're just going to fall apart."

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