For the past year, local Chapel Hill and Carrboro businesses and restaurants have held on tightly to remain open. For some, it wasn’t enough. For others, it’s only getting harder.
Following a year of instability, rising COVID-19 cases and questionable behavior on campus, these local businesses have persevered.
Barry Keith, often called Sid, is the owner of Surplus Sids, an eclectic military supply store on East Main Street in Carrboro. He’s been there 30 years — through recessions, bad weather and all obstacles in between. He said things have never been worse for business.
“I had the slowest year that I've had probably in the last 30 years that I've been here. There’s just no other way to describe it,” Keith said.
An avid collector of unique items, Keith opened the space in the late 1980s. It is a hodgepodge of timeless goodies, featuring military memorabilia such as buttons, helmets and uniforms, genuine vintage decor and even pink lawn flamingos.
At 65 years old, he has no plans to retire or close shop. He said he doesn’t know what he’ll do if he has to leave his creation behind.
“I don't know what I’d do with myself if I couldn't come over here and unlock the door in the morning,” Keith said.
Next to Al’s Burger Shack sits a brick-red camper called Tin Cup Joe. Chris Jordan opened this coffee stand in 2016, offering tea, locally-brewed coffee and his signature Dr Pepper latte.
When the pandemic began, however, Jordan had to close up shop and return home. He waited out the virus for six months, but was forced to reopen when that window of time expired. He said business has suffered.
“For business, fall and spring semesters would usually keep us afloat through Christmas and summer,” Jordan said. “But it’s like it's summer. It's eternal summer.”
Minutes away on North Columbia Street, a white sign with black letters points to Glenn’s Tailor Shop, where owner Jackie Britton works sewing masks between infrequent clients. A tailor for 30 years, she was once busier than ever in the spring months, altering formal dresses and business attire.
With so few events and office jobs staying remote, her services aren’t needed as often. She said she doesn’t know if she’ll survive the pandemic.
“A lot of people, they're working from home," she said. "They really don't have to dress up. They’re pretty much dressed from the waist up,”
The little yellow house where she spends her days sewing has been sold. Now, Britton is forced to relocate, adding the stress of expensive real estate to the stress of struggling business.
Perhaps things may turn around for some. This month, Gov. Roy Cooper expanded vaccine availability to Group 3, which includes frontline grocery store workers, law enforcement and firefighters, college and university staff, restaurant employees and food-handling workers.
For those who qualify as frontline essential workers, this vaccine expansion could mean comfort for the staff as well as its potential customers. And this comfort could mean better business.
Cliff’s Meat Market, located on West Main Street in Carrboro, is a local butcher shop that has served restaurants and community members in Chapel Hill for decades. Owner Gerardo “Tolo” Martinez took over the store last year.
He said when the pandemic began, 90 percent of restaurants that came to Cliff’s for meat supply shut down. But as the vaccine becomes available to restaurant and food handling workers, there is chance for revitalization.
“I feel more comfortable right now, because many people have the shot now,” Martinez said. “Five months ago, everybody was scared; nobody came to the store. But now it's getting better.”
Martinez said he came to Chapel Hill when he was 17 and has worked at Cliff’s ever since. His cousins work with him at the counter, and his wife works the register at the front. It’s his family, and it’s where he grew up after immigrating from Mexico. Though business was threatened, he said he didn’t care — he would keep Cliff’s alive.
“Sometimes it’s slow. But maybe tomorrow will be busy. Maybe this afternoon will be busy. Maybe not,” he said. “I don't put too much attention on how much we sell. You're a customer, and I will help you.”
Britton said she hopes on finding a space close by, so students can walk to her shop when they all return to campus. She said the mask-making business is small, but enough to keep her going.
“It helps a lot to do work on a few masks for different people in different ways,” she said.
Jordan said his top priority is continuing to make people happy through Tin Cup Joe.
“I made this thing, and it makes things, and those things sometimes make people smile,” he said. “And I like that.”
Keith said it would take a lot more than a pandemic to pull him away from Surplus Sids.
“I'll probably just wait and let them carry me out of here feet first,” he said.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.