Optimism has been in short supply throughout 2020.
And clarity is virtually nonexistent. The Supreme Court has declared that New York state’s attempt to force churches and synagogues to adhere to coronavirus pandemic guidelines is a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. But after a tough day at work, if all you want is to sit down in front of a beer and listen to a blues band, your favorite bar is finding it tough to survive under those same COVID-19 guidelines.
Judgments are being made. And unlike religion, entertainment is a freedom not covered by the First Amendment in these pandemic days.
So operating a family restaurant or an independent bookstore or any small business in the midst of the pandemic has evolved into a test of will and wily thinking. “We are keeping our heads down and working away,” says Alayna Alderman, co-owner of Record Archive.
But for Alderman, the survival of her business is not only about getting lucky, but making her own luck. She’s launching a campaign this week that she’s calling “That’s What Friends Are For.” Helping to get the word out, and “spread the love,” as she says, among the small businesses that give the city character. About 20 of them to start, mostly bars such as Abilene Bar & Lounge, Lovin’ Cup Bistro & Brews, Anthology and Marge’s Lakeside Inn. And some restaurants, including The Cub Room and Shamrock Jack’s. The Little Theatre. Iron Smoke Distillery and Three Heads Brewing.
It’s not dramatic. It’s about gift certificates. But more importantly, “It’s about keeping top in mind about all these businesses,” Alderman says.
Retail music is a tough business, but Rochester remains blessed with music stores. Sprawling ones with labyrinthine aisles of music and instruments such as The House of Guitars. Bop Shop Records. Needle Drop Records. Hi Fi Lounge, which bills itself as “The world’s smallest music and audio store.” All woven into the fabric of the city’s music culture. And all employing different strategies to stay alive.
Record Archive is a larger-than-life part of that scene. The big yellow warehouse at 33 1/3 Rockwood St., at the south-side tangle of interstates 490 and 590, has followed the state’s recommended COVID-19 guidelines. Properly worn masks (none of that under-the-nose stuff), social distancing, hand disinfectants. Make the shopping experience efficient, quick and easy.
“I feel the trick is getting people in and out quickly,” Alderman says. “And letting them shop any way they choose. Online, in-store or curbside pickup.”
Yet, despite the precautions, in October, Record Archive was hit hard by COVID-19.
Record Store Day is revered for those who worship at altars built of vinyl records. It's an event that has evolved over the last dozen years into a financial juggernaut for indie record stores across the country. Usually it takes place in April, but this year, Record Store Day was placed on hold as its organizers watched to see how the pandemic would play out. They finally went ahead with Record Store Day, but spread it across three dates -- in August, September and October -- as a way to manage the crowds a little better.
For the most part, Record Archive’s Record Store Day patrons were free to wander the store in a socially responsible way and pick through the overwhelming racks of new and used albums, CDs, DVDs and gag gifts. But the big draw was the 15-minute shifts in the Archive’s eclectic Backroom Lounge, allowing this special breed of audiophile to paw through this year’s Record Store Day catalog of 415 limited-release albums. Music released exclusively for the event, as bands played live on the nearby stage.
And the next day, one of the musicians in those bands tested positive for COVID-19. Over the following week, several Record Archive employees tested positive as well. Alderman shut down the store. A crew in hazmat suits steam-cleaned all 13,000 feet of the building with an Environmental Protection Agency-approved disinfectant.
After 10 silent days, with enough employees testing negative, Record Archive reopened. Culture, pursued with caution.
“People don’t want to be out,” Alderman says. “They shouldn’t be out. I get it. But they still need to shop and buy Christmas stuff, for at least in their world. The holidays are still here, they need to get to all that.”
Except, holiday cheer be damned, the country is now seeing infection rates rocketing upward. An abundance of caution has not been enough, given the disdain by some for the safety of others.
“Whether you like it or not, you’re gonna find yourself bumping into this somewhere down the road,” Alderman says. “I don’t mean to be doom and gloom, but if these numbers do not change, and unless you completely hole up in your house the whole time -- which, you know, it’s conceivable for many people -- you’re going to run into this.”
Over the course of this national disaster -- more than 265,000 Americans dead -- we’ve witnessed different attitudes. “I guess I get most frustrated with people who don’t take it seriously,” Alderman says.
“I’m very nervous that those people that felt the obligation or whatever, the need to be with their family or friends or whatever they wanted to do at Thanksgiving, that they couldn’t recognize that by just changing your habits …”
Slight changes, that’s all the science is calling for. Now we’re waiting for what may be the post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 surge predicted by epidemiologists. A recharged pandemic, striking at families and businesses alike, “putting us all in jeopardy for potentially putting us closed at Christmastime,” Alderman says. “And that’s a retailer’s worst nightmare.”
The solution will require addressing the big picture.
“We’re hopeful for the future,” Alderman says, “and the approach I think the next administration is going to take.”
But for this moment, perhaps the health of the small-business community will be saved by small moves. Small, but aimed straight at the heart of any business. Cash flow.
“I went around and bought gift certificates from all small businesses, and friends that have small businesses,” Alderman says. “It’s called, ‘That’s What Friends Are For.’ It’s about supporting your local business, your favorite local business.”
“And it’s just the beginning, and I’m at 20 so far. But I’ve gone around Abilene, The Little, everything from McCann’s to The Cub Room to Marge’s to Shamrock Jack’s, you name it.”
She’s taking names and phone numbers from customers, and dropping them in a big jar. Names and phone numbers from online orders go in the jar as well. The day before the twice-weekly drawings, Record Archive will feature one of those businesses on social media. And every Wednesday and Friday, someone wins a gift certificate from a local business.
That list now also includes Photo City, Lux Lounge, Mulconry’s Irish Pub, Radio Social, The B-Side Lounge, The Penthouse, Montage Music Hall, The Union Tavern, and the LGBTQ+ nightclub ROAR.
“I’m basically helping support our friends and thanking my customers at the same time,” Alderman says.
“That’s What Friends Are For” puts cash in the hands of a business such as Abilene Bar and Lounge, which has decided to close and wait out the pandemic. And spending that gift certificate, Alderman reasons, might lead some lucky winner to “dig into their pocket for more.”
“There’s so many small businesses that need people’s help right now, you know?” she says. “And you know what? We may be one of them, too. Right now, we’re grateful to be open. But I don’t know what’s going to happen in a couple of weeks.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.