Cyndi Dwyer was experiencing the normal worries that any business owner might expect after she and her husband Dennis moved their custom wood decor operation, Pallets & Pickets, from Mastic to the heart of Main Street in Center Moriches last October. Then Covid-19 restrictions forced her to close for three months.
“I think you always have some sort of fear under normal circumstances, you know?” Dwyer, 58, of Manor Park, said. “Add a pandemic into the mix and yeah, you worry. Are we gonna be able to maintain it?”
“We sustained, which we’re happy about,” said Dwyer. “But it was still very difficult, a lot of anxiety, worrying.”
Dwyer is one of three businesswomen to open Main Street retail shops last year and endure a three-month lockdown and continued restrictions despite the challenges young businesses face even during the best of economies.
One in five small businesses do not survive a year, according to the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. About half of those that do make it past that don’t go so far as a fifth anniversary.
Dwyer’s store, which celebrated its one-year anniversary on Oct. 2, is two doors down from Katie Goulding’s AJ Sunflower Boutique, a fashion, apparel and collectibles shop, which opened in August 2019.
Dwyer aimed to attract more passersby when she moved to Center Moriches from her previous Mastic location, which was set back from Montauk Highway behind the Forge River Nursery & Garden.
“I always wanted the location,” she said. “I thought on Main Street we’d have a better high-traffic area.”
Two months before Dwyer moved to Main Street, Goulding, 23, of Shirley, opened AJ Sunflower Boutique, her first brick-and-mortar location.
“I grew pretty fast online with Facebook,” she said, She started out generating sales through Facebook in March 2018. “And then it just so happened that this space opened up. I walked in here and I could just vision the whole store exactly how it was gonna look.”
Once the store opened, members of Goulding’s Facebook group, which she calls a “big family,” became in-person customers, including one Facebook friend who was visiting last month from South Carolina.
Goulding and Dwyer were seasoned retailers, each in their own way, but Keblish, 52, of Eastport, a former buyer for technology and retail companies, opened Gavin’s Treasures before they arrived on Main Street without previously running a shop.
Her arrival sparked a buzz in the community, which at the time had a number of empty long-empty retail spaces.
“Everybody was so excited to have life in here again,” Keblish said. “It was scary starting in a town where there was nothing because you weren’t sure if you were gonna have any walk-traffic.”
Keblish opened the store after the loss of her son, Gavin Keblish.
“I call it my beautiful distraction,” she said. “When I opened up I figured it would help me heal and then I was really hoping to help other people heal. I was basically opening this up as an inspirational, spiritual and memorial gift shop.”
Without much money, Keblish said she was thankful that friends constructed and donated set pieces for the shop.
“I truly believe Gavin just brought me the right people, the right paths to be in, the right connections.”
By mid-March, state Covid-19 rules forced much of the economy to come to a halt to stop the spread of the virus. That included closing “non-essential” retailers like the three new Center Moriches businesses.
Customers could not purchase through Dwyer’s website, so she turned to social media.
“St. Patrick’s, we were shut.” SamEaster. Mother’s Day.” If she or her husband made something, they would post an announcement for that specific day, like, “Mother’s Day is approaching,” she said.
Customers would then direct message, call or email her to make purchases and arrange to have her products shipped or picked up.
With people spending more time in the house during quarantine, Dwyer believes people decided it was time to renovate.
“We had customers contact us and say, ‘I’m redoing this room,’ and we had a table ordered, we had an entryway table done,” she said. “A lot of home ideas.”
Dwyer and her husband were not the only ones making new things during the lockdown. Goulding and her brother launched their own clothing brand, Lifestyle Fishing Company, in April. They designed two logos, featuring a bass and a tuna, inspired by their love of fishing, that now adorn T-shirts, hoodies and hats in her store.
“We were going to do this anyway, but we just felt like with it being the time where everyone was shopping online let’s try it out and see how it goes,” Goulding said.
She also launched an app for AJ Sunflower Boutique within the first month of the lockdown.
Despite her digital origins, Goulding had to reacquaint herself with “exhausting” Facebook live streams.
“I was not on top of my game,” she said. “It’s like two different businesses because it’s online.”
She said her live streams have run as long as four hours. “I’m trying clothes on. I’m showing how it fits. I’m showing how it feels. I’m telling them the material.”
Goulding’s biggest challenge under lockdown was finding quality products online since trade shows were canceled due to Covid-19.
“I can’t go pick out what I want,” she said. “With that it’s so much easier because you can try it on, touch it, feel it. That’s my biggest thing, and knowing how it fits and sizing.”
In her back room, she has several bags of clothes she purchased but will not sell. “The quality isn’t what I want. If I wouldn’t wear it, I’m not putting it out.” She said she intends to donate the clothes.
While offline, Goulding and her mother, Lisa, fulfilled orders in her store. “My whole shop turned into a warehouse,” she said. “Bags flying everywhere, packaging stuff, shipping stuff. People picking stuff up outside at the door. It was just crazy.”
As Goulding’s store grew cluttered, Keblish used the time to clean and rearrange her store, and tried to accommodate customers that reached out to her hoping to order personalized gifts.
“I started doing appointments, one-on-one appointments in my shop, and then do the clean in between each person coming in,” she said.
She had help getting her website up and running as the lockdown began, but has not had much traffic, reporting two online orders.
Although business has slowed, Keblish did not have to worry about the cost of purchasing items to sell while under lockdown. “A lot of my items are consignment. I only give them money as I sell it, which makes an incredible difference.”
Doors are open
Dwyer, having opened just before last year’s fall fair, believes foot traffic pick up this season. “Even though we can’t have a fair, just the change of season, maybe more people wanna get out,” she said.
“We sustained, which we were happy about,” she said. “So that was a plus, but it was still very difficult, a lot of anxiety, worrying. I’m happy every day to open that door. So I don’t take anything for granted.”
Now that her shop is open, Goulding said she wants her customers to come in to say “Hi.”
“I’ve had so many people come in here saying, ‘Oh my God. I missed you guys. You were closed for so long.’”
She looks forward to seeing one young girl who dubs her shop “the tuna fishy store.”
Once her store reopened in July, she said sales moved from her website back to her physical location.
“When I opened up the app during Covid, everyone was buying online, but then once we opened up the store, everyone was buying in store. It kinda evened itself out.”
With the weather changing, Goulding said she sees an influx of customers preparing their fall wardrobes.
“The jeans have been going like crazy,” she said. “We just restocked them and we’re almost sold out again.”
Keblish said her crystal candles and other spiritual and healing items have been hot items since reopening.
“A lot of people were coming in needing some more positive items to surround themselves with and to give,” she said.
With her store up and running, she plans on hosting mediums and crystal readers. She will have medium Erica Lynn in her store on Halloween.
Although the shops are up and running, Keblish said things are still not normal. “I’m concerned every month, very concerned every month,” she said. “I did really well before Covid, but now it’s different.”
Photos by Nicholas Grasso.