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Dayton small-business owners in conversation with each other, sharing their experiences, hopes and fears about running a small business during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bouncing Back: Heart Mercantile

In front of Heart Mercantile prior to the coronavirus pandemic, (from left) Kait Gilcher, Amanda Hensler, Carly Short & Brittany Smith.JPG
courtesy of Heart Mercantile
In front of Heart Mercantile prior to the coronavirus pandemic, (from left) Kait Gilcher, Amanda Hensler, Carly Short & Brittany Smith.

All over the country, the pandemic has hit small businesses especially hard, and the Dayton region is no different. Some businesses had to close – and many of the ones who survived are still reeling.

Carly Short and Amanda Hensler are part of a group of friends who own several popular Oregon District businesses including Heart Mercantile. They say the past year has been especially traumatic for business owners who also experienced the 2019 Oregon District mass shooting. It happened across the street from Heart Mercantile’s storefront.

Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity):

Carly Short: As a community, especially a tight-knit community in the Oregon District, you know, it really rocked our world. We all feel more connected than we would have.

Amanda Hensler: And it's kind of surreal to think about now after we've been going through this pandemic thing. I mean, we've lost some businesses down by us that were cherished. You know, we lost Corner Kitchen through this pandemic, which is sad to see them go.

Carly Short: I mean, at the beginning, no one even knew what was happening. Are we not going to be allowed to leave the house? That was kind of up in the air. We were all terrified, I think, that we would have to close. And we didn't know what that looked like because it depended so much on how long we were closed, what kind of aid we would get. You know, like if we're even going to have a business or, you know, what about all the employees that depend on the money? Curbside pickup wasn't even allowed for a while.

Amanda Hensler: Also, people were not working. Were people even going to buy anything if they lost their jobs? At Heart, like we always say, we sell a lot of useless stuff. People don't need anything that we sell. It's not essential. So it's like, uh, are they going to actually buy anything?

Carly Short: We felt like it was our responsibility to keep our patrons safe as well as our employees. Every time someone felt like they might have COVID-19, we shut the store down. But when we did open, we had to hire extra help to run the door to take packages out for curbside pickup. So it was costing us more money than it normally would.

Amanda Hensler: We would have a team meeting kind of a thing and try to pump people up, keeping everybody motivated to come in. And then you see the poor waitresses and bartenders who have to deal with that kind of thing, but same in retail -- people get nasty sometimes. But our girls have handled a lot of situations very well.

Carly Short: There was never a moment where we thought that the stores would not exist because we were not going to let this take us out. You just pivot and you find a way to put something new into your business that works for that moment. You dedicate yourselves and you come up with a plan and then you execute it. We were trying to come up with ideas of a new t-shirt that we could sell online and ship. And someone actually reached out to us and sent us a Facebook message and said, 'hey, you need to make essential t shirts.' We had three shirts, one that said, you know, the cuss word essential, then just regular essential. And then we had one that said nonessential. And we sold so many of them because I feel like it was representing how people who were essential felt. And it was a way for people to support us. People really rallied around the Oregon District and the stores saying, you know, support small, especially at Christmastime. But the problem was the restrictions, which, you know, only six people can come in the store at a time, so even though our sales were great and people showed up and we thank them, what would sales have been if we could have just had a regular Christmas?

Amanda Hensler: We had to really try to stop thinking that way, though.

Carly Short: It's all just been such a blur, like the beginning of the pandemic just happened and that it was like three years ago. The impact that this had was horrible. But I hope that we can all come back and be better. And when you do that and you do it with people who want the best for you and the store, it makes it so much easier. We started with six co-owners. We have five now, and they're all women. We really have a girl gang that really knows each other and so if we fall, we all fall together. And when we stand, we all stand together. I think that it's one of the best things we've ever done.

Bouncing Back was produced by Jess Mador, at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO, in collaboration with Audrey Ingram at Launch Dayton, a network supporting entrepreneurs across the Dayton region.

Jess Mador comes to WYSO from Knoxville NPR-station WUOT, where she created an interactive multimedia health storytelling project called TruckBeat, one of 15 projects around the country participating in AIR's Localore: #Finding America initiative. Before TruckBeat, Jess was an independent public radio journalist based in Minneapolis. She’s also worked as a staff reporter and producer at Minnesota Public Radio in the Twin Cities, and produced audio, video and web stories for a variety of other news outlets, including NPR News, APM, and PBS television stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She loves making documentaries and telling stories at the intersection of journalism, digital and social media.