February 7, 2023

Small-business owner throws in the towel, lives to fight another day

Last March, I enlisted to fight coronavirus. I ranked nonessential as a small-business owner of a clothing consignment shop, a business that is all about “upcycling” — creative reuse of things. I immediately mobilized to close the store door. Until further notice, the lack of business income required a hunk of my savings to pay bills and taxes.

The end of May, in compliance with New York Forward, I reopened the store door and enforced regulations designed to combat coronavirus. Mandated masks. Respected social distancing. Cleaning. Cleaning. Cleaning.

Business sales were slow through June. Rent went unpaid. Bills kept coming.

The writing was on the wall. Debt.

With an ear to the ground, I heard about a small-business loan that offered 75 percent forgiveness. I contacted state officials for details. One detail gave me pause.

It wasn’t the fact that because I have no employees, forgiveness would not come my way. It was the unspoken detail that no one knows how long we’ll be fighting coronavirus.

Debt doesn’t scare me. Lack of honest foresight does. During my 35 years of self-employment, I allied with debt when circumstances afforded proof of support. But now?

COVID-riddled circumstances urge my experience and faith to see new realities. And today’s thoughts and behaviors offer little support for my business built on in-person service and public happenings.

Getting a loan out of habit lacked creativity, not to mention honesty.

I considered the strategy of selling online.

Arguably, the technical genius of computer-sustained livelihoods deserves legitimacy, but it sorely lacks the capacity to save. Technical genius can’t guarantee customers, or, more meaningful to me, it can’t guarantee the grandness of heart-to-heart relationships.

Reluctant to give up this business of upcycling and on the alert for hope, I learned about Pandemic Self-employment Assistance.

Repeatedly, I tried contacting the state Labor Department to apply for unemployment assistance. My online attempts faced system errors. The documents I sent snail mail were never responded to. And countless attempts to contact the department by phone came across barricades of recordings. Please wait, all our representatives are busy.

I snagged on disappointment and could barely make the distinction between fighting for life without coronavirus and fighting for life with my business. I argued two options: debt or die.

Reason beat out the falsehoods that coronavirus could kill the idea of upcycling or that the business was my life.

Not wanting debt at my age, I armed myself with inner strength and marched to the county building to file official paperwork to dissolve my business.

The Washington Post reports that “this wave of silent failures goes uncounted in part because real-time data on small business is notoriously scarce, and because owners of small firms often have no debt, and thus no need for bankruptcy court.”

To pay all my bills and taxes, I applied creativity in reverse. Instead of dressing mannequins to display sellable items, I sold the mannequins. Instead of stocking shelves and racks, they too were sold.

For the last time, I locked the door from the outside, but for the first time, I peered through the window to see, what?

Clear, clean, freshly painted walls. Unobstructed wood floors. An open and airy environment.

A grin appeared behind my mask.

I created empty space.

And walked away to keep fighting for that very creativity that outlives failures and pandemics.

Cheryl Petersen lives in Orange County and is author of “21st Century Science and Health: A revision of Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health.”

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