By Eric Gorton, contributor
Heather Brown has done some Christmas shopping online this year, but on Saturday she was among the steady stream of shoppers who visited Harrisonburg’s downtown stores and restaurants.
Brown, of Harrisonburg, said she was not aware it was Small Business Saturday, but wanted to support the local businesses just the same.
As for visiting stores with a fair number of other shoppers during a pandemic that is getting worse by the day across the area and the country, Brown said she felt pretty comfortable.
“I have not seen anyone that has not been wearing masks or not trying to be responsible about COVID-19,” she said.
Many of the shops provided hand sanitizer at their doors and posted signs requiring masks and social distancing. Some smaller shops kept watch on the number of people they had inside at any one time and at least one asked some shoppers to wait outside until others left so there would be room for proper distancing.
Naomi Rabago and Joe Aubry of Harrisonburg said the Small Business Saturday promotion — started 10 years ago by American Express and some partners to boost local businesses during the start of the holiday shopping rush — influenced their decision to visit the stores.
“It has been a little while since I have been out shopping in Harrisonburg with COVID so I figured now was a good time,” Aubry said.
Rabago said she was looking for Christmas gifts from Harrisonburg small businesses for friends and family and that she wanted to support the local retailers – a sentiment echoed by other shoppers.
“Today, since it’s Small Business Saturday, we really wanted to get down here and support some local businesses while we’re shopping for our families for the holidays,” said Madison Greer, of Harrisonburg.
Her boyfriend, Matt Cimino, said one of the benefits of shopping at the local stores is finding items he wouldn’t find at the national stores.
Paul Hansbarger, owner of Lineage, which sells its own hand-made canvas and leather handbags, accessories and candles in addition to products from other small businesses, said on Friday that in-store shopping was down some from a year ago, but online business has increased.
“I feel like Harrisonburg in general is very supportive of its small businesses and we’re grateful that people continue to support our business as well as other businesses here in downtown,” he said.
Hansbarger expanded Lineage this year, opening a second location on North Liberty Street, after taking some time to improve his e-commerce operation.
Sabrina Dorman-Andrew, owner of New Creation, said, “People are visiting our physical stores, however traffic is down in-person from last year to this year. On Black Friday this year, for instance, both of our brick and mortars were down in sales and transactions. The online store, however, did four times as much in sales compared to Black Friday in 2019.”
After going through some rough times at the beginning of the pandemic in March, many of Harrisonburg’s locally owned enterprises have adapted to new ways of doing business, beefing up or adding e-commerce operations, said Andrea Dono, executive director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.
HDR has assisted many of them, providing training and grants for businesses to improve their online presence.
“We spent a lot of time educating the businesses with various tutorials, trainings, resources and then the grant program,” Dono said, adding that the Virginia Small Business Development Center, Shenandoah Valley, has also been instrumental in aiding businesses with their e-commerce platforms.
Although a few businesses have closed during the pandemic, Dono said, others have opened and some, like Lineage, have expanded their operations since the COVID-19 outbreak. Overall, the number of downtown businesses coming and going has been pretty typical.
“Every year we have some kind of turnover. There’s always going to be an influx of businesses coming in, business going out and a lot of times when businesses are new, if they’re in their first or second year, that’s their hardest time and a lot of them don’t make it through,” Dono said. “I’m not really ready to say that the pandemic has taken a big toll on downtown just yet. While two or three of those might have been more directly related to the pandemic, I really believe that at least in the downtown, some of this churn that we’re seeing is really more related to normal business activity.”
Businesses that have closed during the pandemic include FoodBarFood, Jess’s Lunch, Sabor A Mexico, Rocktown Hot Yoga and Larkin Arts, Dono said. Also since the start of the pandemic, Timeless Toys closed its downtown location but continues to operate out of its original location at the Shenandoah Heritage Market off South Main Street; Laughing Dog Studios closed its store and has gone completely online; The Isle Company relocated from Agora Downtown Market to a site near Massanutten Resort; and Steel Heart Tattoo relocated a short distance outside of downtown on East Market Street.
New businesses include Magpie Diner; The Perch at Magpie, a co-working space that rebranded and moved from The Hub on West Bruce Street to space along North Liberty Street; Rocktown Laundry, Rocktown Yarn and Sage Bird Ciderworks.
Despite the pandemic, Amy Strunk said the timing was right for her to open Rocktown Yarn two weeks ago in Agora Downtown Market.
“I felt like we had a good niche that we could carve out for ourselves here and there’s a very passionate knitting, fiber community here in Harrisonburg-Rockingham County,” she said, adding that a recent cancer scare also played a role in deciding to open the business now.
While she offers online shopping, she estimated 95 percent of her customers have come to the store so far.
“Yarn is really tactile. People want to touch it, they want to know what it’s going to feel like, especially if it’s something they’re wearing,” she said.
Dorman-Andrew of New Creation said, “We have been very fortunate to have steady sales since kicking off our holiday shopping season. I believe it really speaks to the loyalty and support of our customers and am thankful that they have continued to stand with us during the most difficult year of business.”
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