Resilient Neighborhoods: These Detroit businesses are getting a helping hand during the pandemic

Pages Bookshop on Grand River in Detroit used to be a bustling place, filled with book lovers browsing its shelves for just the right title. But since the COVID-19 outbreak became a serious issue in Southeast Michigan, no customers have been passing through its doors.

"I closed my store on March 16 and haven’t reopened for shopping," says owner Susan Murphy. "My in-store and event salesSusan Murphy disappeared that day."

Like a lot of Detroit businesses in the last few months, the quaint bookstore found itself having to adjust to a new way of doing business to survive.
"Pages has always sold books online through our website, but the volume was low," says Murphy. "Overnight, online sales became our only source of income."

What had until recently been a showroom for books where people shopped and hung out, suddenly needed to become a processing and shipping center. And this new state of affairs also required a revamp of its computer system. Thankfully, Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation (GRDC), a local community nonprofit, was able to offer Pages a helping hand.

"Grandmont Rosedale provided rent relief, promoted grant opportunities, and provided needed documentation to apply for grants," says Murphy. "I used grant money to upgrade technology so one of my booksellers can have access to the online and in-store systems from home."

Although there are no immediate plans to reopen, Murphy has come up with a plan for post-COVID-19 business.

“The store will again be a place to browse and discover new authors and titles, a place to learn by reading and expanding how you think about and interact with our world," she says. "We will be back to putting the perfect book into customers’ hands.”

Pages is just one of many local businesses GRDC works with in its service area, which is made up of five Northwest Detroit neighborhoods.

“Our Grandmont Rosedale business district is comprised of three vibrant commercial corridors: Grand River, Schoolcraft, and McNichols; and about 500 small businesses ranging from service-based businesses like spas, hair salons and barbershops to insurance firms, pharmacies, medical offices, and restaurants,” says GRDC executive director Sherita Smith. 

Supporting these businesses is a key part of GRDC's mission, which also includes working to maintain community safety and beautify the neighborhood. The organization is well-known to locals for running a weekly farmers market and Grand River WorkPlace, a co-working space, and small business incubator.

With the arrival of the pandemic, GRDC has done its best to find ways to help local entrepreneurs.

“For some, rent and other monthly financial obligations became an immediate challenge as they are dependent on foot traffic and many do not have adequate financial reserves," says Smith. "We were able to support many of them in navigating the myriad sources of relief programs by providing information, connecting them with resources, and assisting with applications."

Soup and Sales

Grandmont Rosedale isn't the only part of Detroit where businesses have struggled to come to terms with COVID-19. 

Central Detroit Christian is a community development organization based near the center of the city that plays an active role in local commerce. In addition to offering services like fixing up dilapidated homes and offering youth and adult educational programming, the nonprofit has launched over 17 different enterprises and still operates several of them, including City Kids Soup.

Lisa JohanonThe soup company sells packages of dry soup ingredients, which come in several varieties like vegetable barley and white bean chili. The soups are put together by teenagers, who get a chance to learn entrepreneurial skills while also earning some money.

Natalia Whitlock, 18, is in charge of production and is responsible for training young employees how to make the soup packages. She's been with the organization since last year and supervising production for about eight months.

"I manage about four to five kids at once," she says.  "It’s very easy and it takes one day for them to get it down."

While Whitlock definitely has the process down, the last few months have still been rather bumpy for the soup business. Due to the recent onset of COVID-19, City Kids Soup has seen a dip in sales and production has also taken a hit. And while the business does have the backing of Central Detroit Christian, the pandemic hasn't been easy for them.

“You don’t get over it. You get through it," says Johanon. "Our sales are down about 50% because people aren’t [going] out."

Before the pandemic, City Kids Soup used to reach a lot of customers through the Sunday Market series in Eastern Market, but that hasn't been the case for the last few months. Later this year, the company is planning to participate in their holiday market season later this year. Johanon hopes that will lead to an uptick in sales.

“We really found our niche during the holiday markets where we’ve sold as much soup in two weeks as we’ve done all summer,” she says. “Holiday markets are in December only. We’re hoping some of the COVID restrictions are lifted and people will come out to the market."

Coffee and Common Ground

The pandemic has been an especially difficult time for dine-in establishments like The Red Hook, a cafe and bakery with locations in Detroit's West Village and Ferndale. 

Sandi Heaselgrave, who owns the coffee shop with her husband, Andrew, says they were forced to temporarily shut down both of their facilities as a result of Gov. Whitmer's pandemic emergency orders.

"We closed on March 16 and furloughed 24 employees," she says. "When we felt it was safe to reopen, our capacity was greatly reduced."

The Heaselgraves adapted to the new circumstances by putting in special walk-up windows where customers can pick up coffee, pastries, and other items. But despite these efforts, they've still experienced a 50% decline in customers and a 60% drop in revenues.

“We're all looking for optimal ways to continue to provide our services to our neighborhood and are exploring all available options," says Heaselgrave.

As it turns out, though, they may be getting some assistance from The Villages Community Development Corporation, aMac Farr nonprofit that serves West Village and several other nearby communities.

“The Villages have kept in constant contact with the small businesses in West Village," says Heaselgrave. "They proposed a street closure to help businesses."

Although it's still in the works, the development corporation wants to close down a portion of Agnes Street to create a shared outdoor common space to help The Red Hook and two other popular local businesses, Detroit Vegan Soul and Live Cycle Delight, can connect with customers.

In addition to this, The Villages CDC has also raised about $12,000 for an initiative to help local businesses experiencing rent issues connected to the pandemic.

Traditionally, the development organization has focused on three areas: infrastructure development, housing stabilization, and resident engagement. But for Mac Farr, The Villages' executive director, the last few months have definitely been a time for thinking outside the box.

“I don’t know that it has impacted us, but it did change the way we operate," he says. "I think COVID has caused us to do more."

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
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