The scene in Carytown was spirited Saturday afternoon.
A little after noon, shoppers were hard-pressed to find a parking space in the lot by Can Can Brassiere. Live music came from in front of Rocket Fizz, a candy and soda shop, where a pair of men played a drum set and a piano.
There were hints of a different era. A line grew from the entrance of toy store World of Mirth. Inside, purple baskets and hand sanitizer waited for customers on a small table.
At For the Love of Chocolate, bins of classics like Haribo Happy Cherries and eclectic picks like champagne gummy bears didn’t have their usual scoops next to them. A little red sign pointed shoppers to the counter, where they could ask for a sanitized scoop.
Owner Elizabeth Vranas said they spend all day cleaning the bins’ lids.
It was different, for sure. But people showed up in droves to support the businesses that have been among those hardest hit by a pandemic during which people have been reconsidering unnecessary trips out.
“This is really like make-it-or-break-it this entire season, but especially like today and tomorrow for a lot of businesses,” said Amanda Slone, president of the Carytown Merchants Association and co-owner of the gift shop Beasties.
Slone said that overall this year, everyone has hung tight, and despite losing some businesses, new ones are popping up. On Black Friday, Slone said her sales at Beasties paralleled last year’s and that she hoped the trend would continue into Saturday.
“I just, I can’t say that enough — Richmond is amazing,” Slone said. “Everybody who’s coming in there, like, they’re just like, we want to shop local, we’re trying to support small business. And so they’re trying to grab as much stuff as they can. And Carytown’s so great because Carytown plays really nicely, you know, if I don’t have something, I know where it is and I’ll send somebody to that other business and, you know, they’ll do that for us, too.”
The biggest threat has been Amazon, Slone said.
“I think people are inspired more by coming to a physical place than shopping on Amazon,” Vranas said. “You can get it obviously faster if you come in here, but I think that there’s something about the variety that we have that is really neat.”
The pandemic has meant adaptation because some shoppers are wary of gathering in indoor spaces. Slone said some businesses like World of Mirth have started to do curbside pickup and delivery.
Merrymaker Fine Paper, which is open only on Saturdays, had a spike in private appointment setups during the week, owner Heather Holub said. Slone said gift shop Mongrel took to the method of order online and pick up in store.
Despite the threat from the pandemic to businesses across the country, especially the small ones, For the Love of Chocolate was nearly 100% on sales compared to what it did last year, Vranas said.
The pandemic hit Merrymaker a little harder. Holub said it’s had to reduce hours and that some of the shop’s older employees elected to step back.
Traditionally, she said, Black Friday and Small Business Saturday weren’t big days for them. Saturday was business as usual.
Ruba Borgard said her boutique Philosophie had to up its online presence and do more deliveries.
“Even when we were boarded up for that week, we had customers that wanted [to just] come in the back door and really support us, so it’s been very humbling for sure,” Borgard said.
COVID-19 has dialed back any semblance of busy on Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, but Borgard said that after a tough year, she was willing to get what they could.
“We’re really surviving like everybody else is,” said Borgard, acknowledging their loyal customers.
Guadalupe Ramirez, the owner of fair trade boutique AlterNatives, said the day was about supporting creativity.
Ramirez said the pandemic has made it rough in terms of the shopping flow through Carytown. When one business closes, the rest feel it.
“We are humans,” she said. “We need that interconnection.”
The virus even hit the shop. AlterNatives had to close for two weeks earlier this year after everyone came down with COVID-19, Ramirez said.
Jennifer Davis and Kevin Swanson came to For the Love of Chocolate from Manchester to get out of the house after 7½ months in quarantine. Davis grew up here and hadn’t been in the shop in years. It was Swanson’s first time in.
Both held handfuls of candy — Davis some AirHeads and a roll of Sprees and Swanson a roll of giant Smarties he used to get as a kid. He hadn’t seen them in 15 to 20 years.
Nostalgia and a sense of returning to the past have kept the chocolate store going through the pandemic.
“They feel nostalgic for not only their childhood but ... for like nine months ago,” Vranas said. “They just, they want to feel normal.”