Some Charleston-area retailers and restaurants were quick to go under shortly after the ill effects of the coronavirus seeped too deeply into their livelihoods.
Still, other entrepreneurs, some of whom lost their jobs because of the pandemic, soldiered on with plans to launch a business despite a virus that had darkened others’ dreams.
Mount Pleasant native Emilie Huesca lost her closet organizing job in New York in March when the coronavirus locked down much of the service economy.
Laura Rames, a psychiatrist, had considered opening a vintage goods business with three partners before the pandemic took hold.
Charlotte-based home goods retail shop owners Kelley Lentini and Berkeley Minkhorst had already met with a real estate agent and looked at several spots in downtown Charleston for a second store when the virus temporarily derailed their plans.
The pandemic didn’t stop any of them.
Starting at the bottom
Two weeks after losing her job in New York, Huesca moved back to the Lowcountry to live with her parents.
“I knew New York would not be the same anytime soon, and I’ve always wanted to have my own store,” she said.
Huesca looked to King Street and she wanted to be north of Calhoun.
Being a recent College of Charleston graduate, she knew students were now concentrated in new apartment buildings in the Upper King area and she believed it was advantageous to be close to her target market of 18- to 40-year-olds.
The first month after she returned home she hit the pavement, walking up and down King Street looking for the right location.
She settled on a 1,400-square-foot space with big showcase windows beside Italian restaurant Indaco.
The ground-floor space previously housed cubicles for a marketing company. Huesca felt it had “a dark industrial vibe.”
She knew it had to change to meet her vision so she borrowed money from her father to lighten up the insides. She installed new walls with a creamy white color, added new lighting and put up an antique chandelier.
Huesca signed a two-year lease with subsequent three-year options, adding it became affordable when the landlord split off the back part of the building for possible other use.
Earlier this fall, she opened Something About Me at 522 King.
Shoppers have been receptive of her new business and weekends have been busy, but she said her biggest challenge so far is a scarcity of walk-in traffic during the week.
“Tourism isn’t anywhere near where it used to be,” Huesca said.
She was hopeful the holiday season would bring more shoppers to the downtown area.
“There is no good time to open a store,” Huesca said. “As long as you believe in it, it will get better. Since I started at the bottom, I can only go up from there.”
Her advice to would-be entrepreneurs: “Save everything you can.”
In early August, Rames and three partners — Cindy Mazzei, Jacquie Hughes and Jean Gabriel — launched Village Emporium, a 7,200-square-foot resale store in Moultrie Plaza on Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant.
“Some people would probably think we were kind of crazy opening when we did,” Rames said.
But the business, she added, has done well because it offers something different and people are tired of sitting at home and buying online.
“Since we sell home furnishings, that has drawn people to us because they want to get out,” Rames said. “There is something unique about going into the shop. People like to touch it, feel it and see it before they buy it.”
Still, the co-owners are guarding against a new surge of the coronavirus that could trigger another lockdown.
“You have to make sure you keep some money in the bank just in case we have to close,” Rames said.
Their leasing contract includes lenient terms as well, a reflection of the times.
“The landlord has worked with us to cut our rents somewhat if there were to be a resurgence of the pandemic or a hurricane,” Rames said.
Rames wonders how businesses are being affected by people who still aren’t leaving their homes. To allay fears, she and her partners try to make sure the store is clean and sanitary and social distancing is easily achievable since the space offers cross aisles.
“People aren’t on top of each other,” she said. “This is one of the few things people can do safely.”
The pandemic has also caused a shortage of some items that are on back order, but Rames said keeping track of inventory is paramount.
“You really have to plan ahead and get enough of what you need,” she said. “You also don’t want to overbuy because you don’t know how long this is going to last.”
For the shopkeepers at Charlotte-based interior design shop House of Nomad, opening a store in downtown Charleston was always on their radar.
The Queen City store was thriving, and Lentini got to know the city well when she attended the College of Charleston, before transferring to Appalachian State University.
She and Minkhorst had visited the Holy City on occasion and it was the next stop on their expansion list.
“We packed our bags and met with the real estate guy and were shown several locations,” Minkhorst said.
They were attracted to a space close to Belmond Charleston Place and the cluster of antique stores just south of the big hotel and shopping complex.
With a built-in base of tourists and plentiful other retailers nearby, they were sold on an 1,800-square-foot shop at 214 King.
“Then COVID happened,” Minkhorst said. “All of our hopes and dreams were quickly taken away from us.”
But they didn’t abandon their idea. They just put it aside while focusing on keeping their employees in Charlotte still on the payroll.
To make it through, they focused on online sales and looked to the future location on King Street as a beacon of hope.
“Just keep powering through and maybe someday we will get back to the place on King Street and make it happen,” Lentini said. “We were lucky. Online sales picked up, and we were back in Charleston and saw the place was still available.”
In late May, they signed a three-year lease. Renovations began in July, and they opened in October.
The main problem they experienced once they decided on the location was getting inventory.
“We have experienced delays in getting things,” Lentini said.
They usually shop for items abroad, but with the limited ability to travel during the pandemic, they turned to international contacts and have been buying through them by telephone.
The pandemic, though, has not curtailed their business, they said. On the contrary, they said consumers have been stuck at home and doing home repairs or renovations.
“We are consumed with work,” Lentini said.
As for opening a new business during a pandemic, Lentini said, “It’s not for the faint of heart, but we have seen such support and people want small businesses to thrive and survive. We hope that support will take us through our opening and beyond.”