Small businesses near the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University rely on students and … [+]
The House of Our Own Bookstore was founded on the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1971. Now, just shy of its 50th anniversary, it is struggling to stay afloat. As an independent bookstore, it has been tough to fight off competition, first from big box stores and then Amazon, says co-owner Deborah Sanford, 70. What has gotten her through: face-to-face business generated by schools in her immediate area, known as the University City District of West Philadelphia. According to the University City District (UCD), a community revitalization organization, in the 2019-2020 school year, students from five colleges accounted for 21,000 of the area’s 55,000 total residents. University staff, prospective students and students’ families and friends are also Sanford’s customers.
On March 16 House of Our Own was forced to close when Philadelphia ordered nonessential businesses to shut down. Since then, Sanford says online revenue has increased, but not enough to make up for in-person purchases. May to July is often a time of increased sales because of Penn’s summer programs, but now, the store is scrambling to salvage lost revenue. Sanford estimates that 60% of total sales come from university students and staff.
“We were feeling very optimistic about things and about trying to run the store just as an old-fashioned bookstore, with books and nothing else. No sidelines, coffee, none of the other things,” Sanford says. “This was such a shock to have this happen.”
As colleges across the U.S. grapple with when and how to reopen, many small business owners like Sanford worry that they may not survive if campuses remain closed through the fall. Reopening has put many businesses on the road to recovery, but progress is fragile as owners face the uncertainty of next semester.
As of May 21, Penn’s website said it was considering “four major scenarios” that range from an online semester to a hybrid approach where students would be on campus but take some courses online. Drexel is planning on in-person instruction, with details pending.
David Fine, founder of Schmear It, a Philadelphia bagel chain with a location between Drexel and Penn, says his business’s March 1-June 10 revenue is down $86,000 from the same period last year. He estimates that 75% percent of total business and up to 50% of catering comes from students and events at Penn and Drexel.
“In the very beginning, once we shut down everything but our 36th and Market location, and more offices, more classes were being canceled left and right, it did feel like it was just a matter of time until our operation was going to be totally done,” he says.
But Schmear It has held on with pickup and delivery orders, Paycheck Protection Program and Covid-19 Economic Injury Disaster loans, and a UCD Emergency Small Business Fund grant made possible by a $250,000 donation from Penn. The extra funds, as well as catering opportunities for healthcare workers and charitable foundations, have allowed him to hire back 10 of his original 20-person staff. The store’s food truck resumed operations on June 10, and Fine, 30, is set to open a new location in East Market on June 13.
Sanford says that communication from the university has been “wonderful”: Penn, the bookstore’s landlord, has sent emails compiling financial resources available to small businesses and granted rent abatements for April, May, and June to locally owned retailers on its land, including House of Our Own. With no employees, Sanford didn’t qualify for federal government relief, but the rent abatements and a donation from the Book Industry Charitable Foundation have kept the doors open. On June 5, the store began curbside pickup for book orders. Sandford and her husband are rearranging the space for adequate social distancing in the hopes of reopening for outside and appointment-based browsing in the near future.
But Mike Choi, co-owner of Korean restaurant Koreana, hasn’t had any bills deferred or abated under his independent landlord. His staff has shrunk from 14 employees to just one since he applied for but did not receive a PPP loan. He’s seen orders fall from around 200 a day to 60 as he and his wife have shifted to pickup and delivery. Recent citywide curfews in response to protests forced his restaurant to close hours earlier than normal, further cutting down sales.
Restaurants in Philadelphia can offer outdoor dining starting on June 12th, but Choi says he won’t see sales go back to normal unless nearby universities reopen in September. He estimates that almost 70% of his customers are from the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, or the University of the Sciences. He believes his restaurant can weather another online semester, but he wishes schools were more transparent with businesses about their plans.
Fine isn’t sure what will happen to Schmear It if schools remain closed, but he thinks it’s important to “compartmentalize” his worries and focus on adjusting to the unexpected.
“When the government shut down food trucks, what was I going to do? That was the government’s decision,” he says. “Similarly, if Penn and Drexel decide that it’s not safe, it’s not in the best interests of students, staff, faculty to come back next semester, then we’re going to have to adapt. Certainly it will be stressful. But if we don’t have control over the situation, then we’re going to have to redefine our own business model to stay relevant.”
“I think being a small business, being an entrepreneur, you never want to just throw the towel in and give up.”