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Small Business Saturday offers lifeline for stores, city

ST. LOUIS – Ever diligent to protect its customers, Catholic Supply of St. Louis stresses every possible way of keeping its customers and employees safe during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. But despite its efforts, Catholic Supply – like many businesses – is struggling.

As the winter holiday season gets underway, the virus is having a depressing effect on sales throughout the city.

“Most retail brick and mortar stores are [down] because of COVID,” said Laura Traina, Catholic Supply’s marketing director.

The store, retailer of all things Catholic, opened in 1961 at 6759 Chippewa Street in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood.

“We’re requiring masks for all employees and customers,” Traina said. Her store also has added plexiglass dividers and emphasizes the need to keep six feet apart. Plentiful supplies of hand sanitizer are available throughout the building.

It might make things safer at Catholic Supply, but it’s not keeping the cash registers ringing.

The lack of cash flow is clearly being reflected in the city’s revenues that depend on business activity.

City Budget Director Paul Payne reported in October that earnings tax withholdings were down 10 percent for the quarter that ended Sept. 31, while payroll tax receipts were off by 9 percent. Sales tax receipts were off by 27 percent, while receipts for hotel taxes caved by 84 percent. Restaurant tax receipts were down 53 percent.

“These levels of decline are unprecedented and reflect the severity of the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic,” Payne wrote in a report on the quarter that ended Sept. 31.

“Obviously, it shows a significant decline in the activities that we expected to see,” Payne said in an interview.

The numbers in a city Budget Division report may seem cold, but they’re real at businesses such as the Vine Cafe and Market, at 3171 S. Grand Boulevard in the Tower Grove South neighborhood. The Vine, founded in 2010, specializes in Mediterranean cuisine.

The Vine, 3171 S. Grand Boulevard

“It’s been an adjustment,” said Savanna Wilson, manager of the cafe, which went to take-out in March. “We let go most of the people” who worked there, Wilson said.

To keep the cafe’s customers safe, the restaurant has set up an online ordering platform and has established strict protocols.

The mandatory wearing of masks is at the top, Wilson explained. If people don’t, “We’ll be nice about it, but we’ll just ask them to leave,” she said.

“We all know everyone is hurting with only so many people allowed for indoor dining, and a decrease in liquor sales is what is hurting the restaurants and cafes,” Rachel Witt, executive director of the South Grand Community Improvement District, said in an email.

“They are being as creative as much as they can by offering online ordering, curbside pickup and delivery. Many have not opened their dining rooms,” Witt said. “Many no longer are open during lunch.”

Sales taxes for the district from business owners are down 19 percent from this time last year, Witt said.

Witt said the district hoped for a good turnout for Small Business Saturday and through December.

“Our numbers can be much worse,” Witt said. “Due to the continual support and love from our loyal visitors and residents from the surrounding neighborhoods is how our businesses are going to make it.”

In the Central West End, meanwhile, Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Avenue, has been closed for public walk-in traffic since March. The store has been in business since 1969. Right now, it’s doing most of its business online and some by phone, co-owner Kris Kleindienst said in an email.  Left Bank Books recently added browsing by appointment at select times, with a limit of six customers.

Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Avenue
To reduce crowding, some staff members, including Kleindienst, are working from home.  Work stations at the store are strictly assigned, and everyone is told to wear masks and sanitize frequently.

“The biggest change for us is from being a walk-in retail community space to basically being a warehouse and call center that sometimes cleans up for a few customers,” Kleindienst said. “This is exhausting and expensive with all the increased packaging and tech costs. Everything takes ten times longer to do per one sale.

“Business right now is brisk, however, and we are very grateful even if we are wearing out our shoe leather.”

She added: “Bookstores are special in that we provide information, access to books that give a deeper understanding of what is going on in the world around us, books that give comfort and support, books that instruct, books that simply take us away from all of it.

“This is a unique mission, and we are very serious about it.”

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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