Small businesses struggle to survive

15 July, 2020 12:00 AM printer

New York: Hour after hour in the dark, Chander Shekhar's mind raced ahead to morning.

More than three months had dragged by since the coronavirus forced him to shut down his business a shop racked with vibrantly colored saris, on a block in New York's Jackson Heights neighborhood once thronged with South Asian immigrant shoppers. Today, finally, merchants were allowed to reopen their doors, report agencies.

But they were returning to an area where COVID-19 had killed hundreds, leaving sidewalks desolate and storefronts to gather dust. Overnight, the uncertainties of reopening had woken Shekhar nine times.

This is an invisible enemy that nobody can see, said Shekhar, who is anxious about the 6,000 monthly rent at his store, Shopno Fashion.

I have worked hard for this for more than 20 years, then I got my shop. It's not easy to leave it.

The pandemic's toll leaves Shekhar reluctant to complain, and he knows he is not alone. As economies around the world reopen, small businesses that help define and sustain neighborhoods are struggling.

The stakes are high: The U.N. estimates that businesses with fewer than 250 workers account for two-thirds of employment worldwide.

Many acknowledge that reopening is just the beginning. But it is a critical milestone, a testament to their grit, creativity and some desperation. It's about finding whatever works, because now there is no such thing as business as usual.

In 15 years as a London bookseller, Jane Howe never saw the need for a website.

On weekends, shoppers packed the tidy Broadway Bookshop, drawn by the store's personalized service.

I think of it as a dinner table and I lay everything out, these delicious dishes for people to take and try, Howe said. It's going to be very difficult to replace online. The coronavirus didn't leave much choice.

With foot traffic on the Broadway Market way down and distancing rules in place, it made little sense to reopen. Howe let go of three part-time staffers, tried to negotiate a rent reduction, and borrowed 50,000 pounds from the government.

In mid-June, she launched a website. In the first week, the site took in 28 percent of pre-pandemic sales. In July, she began selling books from the store's doorstep.

I'm going to give it my best shot for the next 18 months and then I don't know what will happen after that if we don't break even, she said. I'm hoping we come out of this in a year's time all I can do is hope we will. - By Sylvia Hui in London

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