Shortly before New York City made it compulsory to close unnecessary companies due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pearl Chin decided to temporarily shut down Knitty City, its 15-year-old yarn store in Manhattan.
Chin had just returned from vacationing in Puerto Rico days before his decision. While her business continued as usual, she noticed that people "panicked shopping" when she went shopping. Their concerns grew for both their employees and their customers, which included a number of regular senior buyers. Then her son Zac – who helps manage the business – said it was time to close. They decided to close after Saturday, March 14, to give customers the opportunity to stock up on supplies.
"The moment we made that decision, I stopped worrying because I thought it was the best decision," she says.
Chin's store is one of the many in the fiber art world that closed either shortly before or around the time when government mandates for closings were given. Some have weathered the storm by expanding their online shops and offering roadside pickup. But now they're trying to figure out how to safely reopen it, especially given that such businesses often serve as a community space where like-minded people gather during class and in knitting circles to work on projects and socialize.
From common rooms to online shops
Although stores in Georgia have reopened in recent weeks, the Athens-based Revival Yarns initially only offered roadside pickup. This week, the doors to shopping are only slowly reopening by appointment. However, the owners can close it again if the state detects an increase in coronavirus cases.
While the store has a wide range of customers, Lindsay Woodson, co-owner of Revival Yarns, says that many are aged 65 and over, which made her and the other owner of the store, Cara Cannon, nervous to reopen early .
"I hate telling people that I can't help them with their projects, and I feel terrible when I have to withdraw from a customer when they tell me how their children are doing and they are getting closer," Woodson says, "It's just not who we are. But it's important. "
Revival Yarns closed its shop earlier than many stores in the state when the Mayor of Athens called for closures from the governor, Woodson says. From there it was a "hectic blow" to update the website with the yarns available for sale. The first few weeks after the closure were difficult because customers wanted to support the shop, Woodson says, but most of the inventory was not yet listed. Some initial orders were received over the phone and even through social media messages.
"We had a website, but we had never sold yarn online before," she says. “The fiber world is a community thing. We have always been proud to be a common room, to help people and not to be another online shop. "
The business has been placing online orders for a few months, while owners across platforms are responding to messages “with photos and suggestions” to help customers.
After closing on March 16, Catherine Clark, owner of the Brooklyn General Store, which sells yarn, fabrics and related accessories, went back to her website and worked alone in the store to fulfill online orders. In particular, the orders for fabrics that have "lost weight" have helped her stay in business, she says. It also played a big role in making masks and selling mask kits.
"Perhaps a month after the closure, I decided we really had to offer this and it was a way for me to continue paying (my employees)," she explains, saying that some workers made masks for sale as they did their usual Couldn't perform duties in the store.
The Brooklyn General Store, which sells yarn and fabric, is committed to selling masks and mask making kits because of the pandemic. Courtesy of the Brooklyn General Store
Other yarn stocks have followed a similar path. The Perfect Blend Yarn and Tea Shop, a yarn store that also sells tea products at its stationary location in Saugerties, New York, now lists yarns, kits for knitting projects and other items on its website.
Back in New York City, Chin, who sporadically tried to fulfill orders by email during the first part of the shutdown, began to intensify these efforts in late May. Knitty City now offers free roadside pickup several times a week, delivery within the Upper West Side of Manhattan for $ 5 and orders that can be shipped for $ 8. The website is also updated with yarns, needles, tote bags and much more.
What do yarn stores look like with social distance?
But shopkeepers also think about what they will do if they can let customers in. It is still unclear how easily the coronavirus can be absorbed by fabrics, but buying yarn is a tactile activity so hand sanitizers will be on site. According to the shopkeepers who spoke to Fortune, customers must wear masks. ("Many people want to hold it to their faces and inhale yarn, so that's not allowed," says Clark.) A number of social distancing practices, such as limiting the number of people who can enter, will also be in place .
According to Woodson, Revival Yarns' strategy, which only arranges appointments, can only accommodate one customer at a time. Customers are encouraged to place all of the yarns they are interested in on a table that is typically used for display items, rather than stacking them at the counter or carrying them throughout the store.
It is too early to be sure when they can let in more customers. Woodson and Cannon also have young children, whose schedules can determine the next steps.
"I am certain that when the school is back in session and such meetings are taking place, we would likely allow more than one person to do business at the same time," Woodson says. "It's just so difficult to say. We can say we open up to more people, and then we can close it when it feels insecure."
Revival Yarns, which already offers purchases by appointment only, has set up a table where customers can put the yarns they have selected aside. Courtesy of Revival Yarns
Clark, whose 1,800-square-foot store is fairly large, is considering a safe pick-up area for the future when New York City allows stores like her to let shoppers in. "I'm not quite sure how to do it yet, but I think like an ice cream parlor where you can try a few items and then choose your taste, and then we'll collect your items for you," she says.
Perfect Blend owner Mary Ebel plans to buy a couple of chairs and benches to be kept out of her business so everyone is waiting to come in. A maximum of four customers may be inside at the reopening. She is not yet sure when she can start knitting again in her shop, but if she does, only four participants can participate at the same time – by prior reservation.
Chin, who also plans to limit the number of customers in the store when she officially reopens the store, is considering keeping some tables with yarns for sale outside of her store while the door remains open during the summer months.
"And I don't know if we're going to go as far as cash, just credit card," she says. "I think we'll take our tour of a lot of the little places that are already open – the restaurants and the little smoke shops – and see how they're doing."
Why a personal community is still important
In the meantime, many businesses have found both formal and informal ways to keep classes and meetings going. According to Chin, some of her regulars have started holding zoom meetings, including those involved in a weekly men's knitting night. Their store's website now offers customers the opportunity to contact teachers for virtual help with projects.
"Some of our instructors have set up so that they can have two cameras so they can put a camera on their hands and also talk to a customer so they can do help sessions like little mini-courses," says Woodson. "The people who used it were really happy. I think a lot of people even hesitate to try it because knitting is difficult when you can't see someone's hands well. "
Ebel has also held zoom gatherings and FaceTime calls with repeat guests to find a socially distant way to fix customer projects when they get stuck.
"They drive past. I leave (the project) a day before I open it," she says. "I'll fix it and call you, and they'll come back and pick it up."
Most shopkeepers imagine that this is how they will have to maintain their communities for the near future, even after their physical stores reopen, although this is not ideal.
"We have people who come here three times a week just to hang out here, just to be together," says Ebel. "You become friends and connect. Age does not matter. It doesn't matter what gender it is – nothing else matters except that they are your knitting friends. "
In addition, events have become an important part of the knitting community – Vogue Knitting Live! is big in cities like New York and Seattle, while the annual Sheep and Wool Festival takes place in Rhinebeck.
"This is our big week for the year," says Ebel from the festival, pointing out that Saugerties is near Rhinebeck. "At the moment my gut feeling is that it won't happen, but we have to wait and see."
"Retail depends on all the other things to keep us alive," Clark says.
Although the companies Fortune has spoken to have come through customizing in the past few months, it hasn't been easy. Like other small businesses, some of the paycheck protection loans required loans. In the case of Revival Yarns, Woodson says part of this money was used to pay employees to knit projects that could be displayed in the store in the future.
Ebel, whose landlord gave her a "little break" on the rent, says that she "has maintained enough" to keep the business going, although she doesn't bring much more. Knitty City set up a GoFundMe earlier this year. Shutting down benefits employees, although Chin – who says she can "borrow from me" – has now decided that contributors can get the full store credit.
Clark ultimately believes that most yarn stores will be fine since the pandemic is causing people to focus on more "domestic" activities. Handicrafts, cooking and gardening are among the activities that have become increasingly popular in recent months. "I have a feeling that knitting as well as sewing will increase a lot – sewing at home and knitting at home and just general homemade things," she says.
And while Chin is also concerned about the change in business practices, the inability to hold events easily, and the likelihood that international visitors, who make up a large part of the customer base of their business, will no longer be able to for some time visit, she is ready to customize as needed.
"We’re probably not going to buy as much yarn as we did in the past. I mean we’ve had cash flow issues in the past where we’ve been overbought for a particular season and we had to deal with it so that it’s not foreign to calculate the cash flow for the business. "She says. "So it may be slow, but we'll do it."
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