Small businesses are slowly coming back to life around Bedford, consistent with state guidelines for reopening.
Alyssa Sandoval, the economic development director in the office of the town manager, said she has kept in touch with proprietors since the virus-induced state of emergency resulted in mass closures in mid-March. She said she has had no reports of businesses that are not planning to reopen.
Sandoval earlier this week sent a message to hundreds of residents who subscribe to municipal email messages, urging them to return to local businesses and “be patient, be sensible, be kind” as they adjust to new rules and schedules.
A survey of a range of small businesses revealed a range of reopening experiences and plans.
At the Learning Express store in the Bedford Marketplace, “We’re hanging in there, that’s for sure,” said Lauren Derse, franchise owner.
“During the time when our doors weren’t open, the local community has been so supportive,” she declared. “We created a new website just for our store so we were able to have customers order for curbside pickup.” Now the business is gradually reopening.
Learning Express is actually two businesses, Derse explained. “The play side remains closed until at least Phase 3 because it is considered more like a children’s museum and play space. On our toy side, we spaced all of our displays six feet apart. All of our staff and customers wear masks and we ask customers to use hand sanitizer when they come in and keep their children close.”
“We removed all of our hands-on demonstrations from the sales floor and installed plexiglass barriers between staff and customers at the cash registers,” she continued. “We have asked our staff and our customers what would make them feel most comfortable coming back, and that was incorporated as well.”
For now, Learning Express is open six hours a day and closed Sundays. Some staff members are still waiting to return; “but sales volume doesn’t warrant full staffing,” Derse said.
“The Board of Health has been a very good resource, very communicative in terms of what the governor has mandated retailers to do in terms of safety,” the owner commented
At Bedford Jeweler in the Great Road Shopping Center, which opened in 1955, Shirley O’Connor said curbside pickup for repairs started less than three weeks ago. “I called people to come and pick up repairs. We put batteries and watches and left them on a table with hand sanitizer.”
The reopening on Monday, June 8, featuring a revamped window display. “We have 1,200 square feet, which means we can have eight people, including staff,” O’Connor said. (The three small dogs are exempt from the limit.) “We had a few people in. Monday morning, including a gold buy that took a long time. Watch batteries are the main thing right now.”
During the weeks when retail was closed, O’Connor said, she and her brother Gordon Bishop “were pretty bored. We had the dogs and we walked our brains out. I did a bunch of puzzles.”
ArtSpark School of Visual Arts in the medical building at 41 North Road opened in April 2019 offering drawing classes for children and adults. Eleven months later it suspended operations. “I actually spoke to my landlord,” said owner Trish Ng. “I haven’t been approved for any grants because I haven’t been in business long enough.” She was rejected three times.
“I’ve been doing Zoom classes for free and trying to regroup so I can do online classes in about two weeks to at least pay my rent,” Ng said. “I know I’m not an essential business but I would love to bring people back into the studio. I have room to spread people out. There’s plenty of space for up to four.”
The owner said Sandoval not only provided the state checklist with reopening guidelines but also “spoke to me many times. She really kept me going.”
Ng hopes to resume in-person classes around July 7. She acknowledged that her business doesn’t fit cleanly into the state’s phased reopening structure, but “I’m getting all my materials in order.” Still, the online option may prevail for a while, as “I’m hearing from a lot of parents not really eager to send their kids.”
Leary Auto Repair wasn’t required to close. There just wasn’t anything to do.
“Everything stopped at the end of February,” owner Pat Leary said. “There were no cars coming in. There was barely enough work for myself and one other guy. Some days we didn’t have work.” He had to lay off 14 mechanics.
Now people have a few more places to go and there’s an increased demand for service. “I started bringing everybody back about three weeks ago.” About half of the original staff has returned.
“We are constantly cleaning, When customers drop off vehicles, we sanitize the keys and the steering wheels,” said Leary, who is in his 16th year of business in Bedford. “People who don’t want to come in can leave their cars at night, pay by credit card and pick up the next night. Some customers are perfectly fine with that.”
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? “We hope we’re there,” said Leary.
The showroom at Baudanza Electric in the Mead Block off Shawsheen Avenue was closed for two months, although then electrical repair and installation part of the business continued to operate on outside jobs, said Veronica Chester, who has handled the retail side for 40 years, since the store opened.
“We’re wearing our marks, and there’s Purell all over the place – I always wipe everything down anyway, that’s part of my routine,” said Chester. There aren’t footprints or lines to mark six-foot increments because “only one or two people come in at a time anyway.”
The delay did not compromise the inventory of light fixtures, Chester said. “Lighting fashions don’t change so fast, and new stuff will be coming in for fall.”