Small local retailers adapting, hanging tough

By Dalton Padilla / NM News Port

New Mexico’s non-essential businesses — like small local retail stores — have slightly fewer restrictions now based on New Mexico’s new three tier reopening system that began December 2. Still, some are still struggling to adapt to the harsh economic conditions caused by the pandemic. 

The three tier system, announced this week by New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham after a two-week emergency shut-down, categorizes each county as red, yellow or green — with red commanding the highest level of restrictions. The data behind the color coding is updated every Wednesday. 

“The county-by-county framework enables counties, and the businesses and nonprofits within their borders, to operate with fewer restrictions when they slow the spread of the virus and drive down test positivity rates,” Grisham said. 

With nearly every county in the red — including Bernalillo — local businesses in Albuquerque are operating under the most strict restrictions, allowing them to reopen at a reduced capacity of 25% or 75 people — whichever is smaller.

A sampling of local merchants shows them surviving, but only by adapting to the new normal.

Marquis Martinez, business owner of Nob Hill Vintage Boutique, buys, sells, and trades vintage clothing. Martinez’ store specializes in 90s and early 2000 fashion, utilizing a space in downtown Albuquerque for business.

Marquis Martinez, business owner of Nob Hill Vintage Boutique. Photo by Dalton Padilla / NM News Port.

Until the COVID crisis, the vintage store relied heavily on walk-in traffic for business. Now, however, the store is working to build an online presence to continue operating.

“With social media nowadays, we’ve kind of adapted to the COVID pandemic situation,” Martinez said. “What we do is go straight to the internet and try to pull in traffic from there.”

Martinez said that his business won’t be applying for governmental assistance during the pandemic. 

“Honestly, we’ve been handling it ourselves,” Martinez said. “Just blood, sweat and tears getting it (merchandise) out, not having to rely on a handout.” 

Martinez is proud of how far the business has come. 

“Community has always been first for us,” Martinez said, “We try to do coat and can drives. Try to give back because without them, there is no us.”

Adam Sorrell, owner of ASTRL Clothing, has been in business since 2018.

“As a clothing brand, a lot of what we do is we built our audience online, we’ve done a lot of sales online in the past.”

Sorrell’s business, located on the corner of  Central and Broadway, was seeing more walk-in traffic prior to the outbreak and had several events planned for 2020.

“We had a built-out event schedule for 2020,” Sorrell said, “Virtually that was taken off the map, we cancelled six events the first week the lockdown was announced.” 

With the economic business loans released by the U.S. government, Sorrell was able to receive an Economic Injury Disaster Loan. This loan amounted to $4400 that has to be paid back. Through the same program, he was again granted an additional $1000.

“That actually helped out a lot the first time because we didn’t have the shop up, didn’t have a lot of inventory at the time and not knowing if I was going to get it,” Sorrell said.

Although Sorrell has an in-person store, the new guidelines only allow him to operate at 25% capacity.

“The local government needs to take a look at the impact that it is going to have,” Sorrell said. 

Adam Sorrell, business owner of ASTRL Clothing. Photo by Dalton Padilla / NM News Port.

“Ultimately safety is super important but if we are shutting down small and medium-sized businesses and only allowing for Amazon, Walmart, and Target to operate, you’re looking at potential killing the economy for years to come.” 

Small retailers like ASTRL are especially vulnerable to the economic effects of the pandemic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, clothing stores have been hit hard, losing nearly 13 percent of revenue compared to last year. 

New Mexico heavily relies on small businesses — 96% of employers fit that category. Small business accounts for more than half of all jobs in the state.

New Mexico’s unemployment rate was just over 8% in October, the latest data available. It had been as high as 12.7% in July. A year ago, it was much lower, around 4%.

Danielle Foster, co-owner of Bookworks, has been selling used and new books in Albuquerque’s North Valley for 10 years.

“We were doing about 350 events per year including conferences and school events,” Foster said. “We had four full-time employees and 14 part-time employees.”

Currently the shop is being run by Foster and her co-owner plus four employees at home. The majority of their staff was laid off.

The store has been surviving on curbside and online services since March. 

“I applied for a federal grant for businesses but not the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program),” Foster said. “We also received a grant to pay off our SBA loan  (Small Business Administration).”

Foster said the loan helped them offer free shipping and to save for items they may need in the fall.

Despite criticism from some that the governor’s orders are bad for business, Foster comes down on the side of safety.  

“We have a one-year-old and I do have some health issues,” Foster said, “We felt that it was important to not have that level of anxiety due to our personal situation.”

Bookworks has seen an increase in sales in the most recent weeks despite being curbside and online only.

“We are encouraging holiday shopping due to printing shortages in the industry and shipping delays that are occuring” Foster said. “The last week-and-a-half we’ve seen a heavy increase in our orders.”

To stay active within the community the bookstore is promoting virtual book fairs for schools and they recently started an affiliate program to help anyone in need of fundraising. 

“We’ve found it comforting that we did not have to change our business model, again,” Foster said, “We are just trying to stay steady because we are down for the year, so we want to make smart decisions going forward.”

Dalton Padilla is a reporter for New Mexico News Port. He can be reached on Twitter @journalistdalt or by email at nmnewsport@gmail.com