John Waite has been an active voice in Spokane's small business community for decades and has never seen anything hit the economy as hard as the coronavirus. The owner of Merlyn's Comics since 1999, and Auntie's Bookstore since 2016, Waite has seen his two stores go from employing about 30 people total to zero in the span of a day. Sales since Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's stay-at-home order issued last week, which counts book and game shops like Waite's as "non-essential," have also been mostly nonexistent. While Waite is deeply concerned about the lasting impacts the pandemic will have on the local business landscape, he remains optimistic that his stores, and other local ventures, will survive.
INLANDER: How has the coronavirus impacted your businesses so far?
WAITE: I've been running businesses since 1985 and this is by far the most traumatic thing ever; more than 9/11, more than [the recession] in 2008-09. I'm not sure that we've laid anyone off before in 40 years of doing this, so that was traumatic. We've never shut our doors for more than a day or two. Ice Storm [in 1996] might have been the only time. We are not essential, which is fine. I accept that we're not as important as weed stores and bicycle shops, but we do provide a vital service.
How many employees did you have at both stores, and how many have been laid off?
Five people at Merlyn's and 24 at Auntie's. It's just me right now. In the morning I go to Auntie's to make sure it's not burning down, then I come here to Merlyn's and make sure everything's not burning down.
Are you getting any lease assistance?
We have some help from the Liberty Building [where Auntie's is] and then we own the building here at Merlyn's. We're in a different position than a lot of businesses. We don't have to worry about rent and I don't pay myself at either store, so I don't have to worry about that. Functionally, we will survive if things get better.
Now what is interesting is that some of my distributors and publishers might not survive. That is a whole different sort of problem for us. Even if a store like mine survives and has the wherewithal to stay open, we may or may not have product to sell.
What are you doing in the interim to reach customers?
We're not doing curbside pickup at Auntie's anymore, but we have a fulfillment center for mail order that is located outside of Washington. Merlyn's is potentially doing curbside, but I'm not sure if that is a good idea or something we will do. The amount of time and energy you put into that are terribly low returns.
How much are sales down compared to this time last year, and how can people support local stores like yours?
It's not really a matter of being behind. There are no sales. What we're doing for mail order is a nice token effort; we want to make customers happy and give them something to read, but the volume is just, it's going to be minimal. If people want to buy something, we hope they buy something online from us instead of Amazon. At Merlyn's we'll put out cool things when the quarantine ends, and we'll be ready to do stuff again. We'd like people to buy a gift certificate and ride it out with that. Frankly, we hope that when this stops people can come back. It's hard to spend money at a restaurant or Merlyn's or Auntie's if you're just trying to pay the bills.
What are you doing to stay busy and calm during this unprecedented event?
The stress of this is almost worse than the actual event for us. The stress is the real part. We don't have the ability to socialize right now. Normally, you'd go out with a buddy or go see a friend and get a beer and commiserate about it, and we can't do that right now.
Last week I went to lunch with some old high school buddies. We met in a park and sat on different ends of a park bench and were able to hang out and say hi. It was fascinating. It was kind of nice.
I hope that people can ride this out and remember us, the local stores, when everything gets back to normal, whenever that is. To help now, buy a book online and have it mailed to your house. Merlyn's and Auntie's will be here when it's done and we'll be in a world that can help us. I think that it will be like that again. I'm not a pessimist. ♦