Small businesses are facing financial hardships due to state-mandated closures, slower foot traffic and a decrease in staff members caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that was declared by the World Health Organization in March. According to a July poll from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 70 percent of small business owners are “concerned about financial hardship due to prolonged closures,” and 65 percent are worried about having to close for a second wave of COVID-19-related closures.

In the High Country, a number of locally owned businesses are struggling, including Boone’s only independently owned bookstore, Foggy Pine Books, which also hosts a variety of community events each month. A number of events have transitioned to an online format due to COVID-19.

“This has been one of the most stressful years of my life,” said Mary Ruthless, owner and founder of Foggy Pine Books. “There have been some lows — being yelled at by folks and called names — and some highs — like the community support and gifts from customers. Mostly it’s just the daily stress of making sure I have enough money to pay our staff and our bills. I’m exhausted, as I think most small business owners are right now, from working all the time and from compensating for a smaller staff.”

While business has picked up since the beginning of the pandemic, Ruthless said that she believes the uptick is due to community members finding out about how to order from the store.

“At the beginning of the shutdowns, everything was so new, and we had no idea what we were doing, so it was hard to figure that out on the fly and tell customers how we’re operating at the same time,” said Ruthless. “Now that’s all settled, and things are running a bit more smoothly. We have remained closed to the public, which I’m sure has hurt us, but our staff is safe, and that’s what matters. I’d also say that folks have gotten less aggressive with us about not being open to the public. At the height of the shutdown, we were getting harassed by folks multiple times a day about it but now it’s down to just a few times a week. It should be zero but we’ll take what we can get.”

Sandy Yarchin, an owner of The Pet Place on Shadowline Drive in Boone, agrees with Ruthless’ sentiment that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented more obstacles to small business owners than ever before.

“It has been a daily challenge (in) how to keep everyone safe, how to properly stock the store and the best way to communicate with our customers. Although we were always considered essential, we closed for six weeks, doing delivery and curbside only,” Yarchin said. “We just felt we needed to in order to keep people safe and until we knew more.”

Yarchin also said that opening the store has been “stressful” as “not everyone wants to comply with a face covering, sanitizing their hands and even staying six feet apart, but overall most (customers) have been good about it.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, according to Yarchin, customers were mainly focusing on buying “basics,” such as pet food and dietary supplements. Now, Yarchin said, as the fall season approaches and people are leaving their homes again, The Pet Place is seeing more purchases for more superfluous items such as hiking accessories and treats.

“Also a lot of people are adopting pets,” Yarchin said. “We have a lot of new pet parents.”

Both Ruthless and Yarchin said that the community support has been invaluable during the past six months; however, Ruthless still fears for her business’ survival.

“I feel pretty confident that we’ll make it to the holidays, but I’m especially worried about what happens after that. Last winter was brutal, and we barely made it to spring. I’m not looking forward to another round of that, and I’m afraid we won’t make it this time … I’m hoping that letting folks know how we’re doing and asking for help when we need it will continue to be effective in generating support for the store,” she said.

According to Ruthless, the best way to support Foggy Pine Books is to buy books from the store. To distribute orders, the store currently offers online shopping with local delivery to Boone residents and a drive-thru window option. Staff members can also take orders over the phone.

Community members can also donate to a GoFundMe page dedicated to the store at https://bit.ly/3m20u8d. Since July 23, when the fundraiser started, the community has raised $11,435 of its $20,000 goal as of Sept. 9.

“...Donations will allow this amazing owner to hold on to a lifelong dream. A dream to provide love and education to anyone who wants it,” said Patrick Saunders, the organizer of the GOFundMe page. “This store is a benefit for children and families as well as students of all ages in our community. I love this store. I’ve known the owner for many years and I know how much more is in store for this place given the chance.”

Ruthless added that purchases and donations aren’t the only options to support the store as sharing, commenting on and liking the store’s social media posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, telling people about the store and donating used books are cost-effective ways to bring attention to the store.

“I am very grateful for the outpouring of love and support we’ve received from our community and from folks outside of Boone as well. It’s really made me feel that we have made a positive impact in our four short years here,” said Ruthless.

Yarchin said that while she’s “confident we will be OK,” The Pet Place continues to have problems with the supply chain, meaning that the store cannot always get what it needs, and business is slower since tourism is less popular this year.

“Our community has been awesome,” Yarchin said. “We have always worked to provide the very best products at the best prices for our local residents. We value their business, we support local causes and really feel they are family.”

According to Yarchin, several customers made donations to the store to benefit those who may not be able to afford necessary supplies, and one community member donated $1,700 for working K9s since The Pet Place couldn’t hold its annual fundraiser to benefit service animals.

Foggy Pine Books can be found online at www.foggypinebooks.com and in Boone at 471 W. King Street.

The Pet Place’s Facebook page can be found at www.facebook.com/PetPlace.BooneNC, and the store is located at 240 Shadowline Drive in Boone.

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