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Business Owners, Shoppers Hopeful As Brattleboro's Main Street Reopens

Clerk checks a customer out from behind a Plexiglas sheild
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Loretta Palazzo, right, works behind a Plexiglas shield inside her store, Boomerang, in Brattleboro.

Non-essential retail stores were allowed to open up Monday for the first time in about two months.

And while we still have a long way to go before things get fully back to normal, some shoppers and store owners around Brattleboro said it feels like a big step forward to get more activity downtown.Boomerang is a store in downtown Brattleboro that specializes in vintage clothing. It’s the kind of place where you have to walk inand check out what they’ve got to find that one special piece that completes your look.

“These are cute,” store co-owner Loretta Palazzo told a customer who was cashing out.

“I know. I saw them and I was like, 'I need something like that in my life,'” the customer said.

Palazzo said as far as cash flow was concerned, she wanted to open her store, though she wasn’t sure if her customers were ready to come out.

There’s been a lot of work to do between getting the store up to code and reading up on the new health and safety requirements.

But Palazzo said she was willing to take the next step in helping downtown Brattleboro move forward because Vermont’s done such a good job in controlling the new coronavirus.

More from VPR: 'It's A Big Hit': Even With Federal Aid, Vermont Businesses Worry About Surviving COVID-19

“Because we don’t have an end to this in sight, as far as a vaccine, I kind of feel like... now is just as good a time as any,” Palazzo said. “You know, like, why not?”

"It's incredibly important for these main street stores to be opening up. We need to be able to interact with our friends and neighbors and the store owners, you know, on main street, or around the corner. It will have an impact emotionally." - Erin Sigrist, Vermont Retail & Grocers Association

It was kind of an overcast, lazy Monday afternoon the first day stores were open.

The streets weren’t packed with shoppers, and about one-third of downtown stores remained closed. But there was a different feel in Brattleboro with some of the stores open and a little bit of foot traffic on the sidewalks.

Nick Plante, who was heading into a skateboard-vape shop, appreciated the change.

“It’s odd to see people out walking around the road, and to see stores opened in the first place,” he said. “I think it’s nice to have some amount of activity.”

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Bob Woodworth stands in his store, Burrows Specialized Sports, on Main Street in Brattleboro Monday. Woodworth said business has been good, but he is having trouble getting bikes due to a nationwide supply shortage, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Scott has been slowly opening up Vermont’s economy and over the past few weeks, contractors and some manufacturers have gotten back to work.

More about reporting from VPR about measures taken to reopen Vermont's economy:

But the move to open up nonessential downtown stores downtown was possibly one of the most visible signs that Vermont was inching its way toward some sense of normalcy while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in other parts of the country.
“It’s incredibly important for these main street stores to be opening up,” said Vermont Retail & Grocers Association president Erin Sigrist. “We need to be able to interact with our friends and neighbors and [with] the store owners, you know, on main street, or around the corner. It will have an impact emotionally.”

Sigrist said she wasn’t surprised that some stores remained closed Monday.

Some owners are still getting up to speed with the new health and safety regulations, which include having staff wear masks, posting signs about cleaning procedures and making sure there is enough space in each store for socially distancing.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Signs on a shop window in Brattleboro let customers know that the owner has followed all of the health and safety regulations required to open up during the pandemic. About 1/3 of the stores in Brattleboro remained closed Monday.

“Reopening is almost like opening your store from the beginning,” Sigrist said. “You know, there are a lot of things that need to be thought about. And there are a lot of practices that need to be put into place. Ultimately, we want to see everyone open back up, but I think that there are some questions lingering on whether everyone actually will be able to.”

Bob Woodworth was one of the business owners who opened up his bike shop in Brattleboro Monday.

And with the weather starting to change, and a lot of summer camps cancelled, Woody, as he’s known in town, said there’s been a lot of demand for bicycles.

The problem though, is that there’s still a worldwide pandemic going on.

With supply chains from China slowed, and a big demand for bikes nationwide, Woody said he’s spending a lot of time on the phone trying to restock his store.

“A lot of suppliers are running out of basic recreational bikes, as are we,” Woodward said. “Our big concern for the next few weeks is getting something to sell now that we’re open.”

Just down the street, Ralph Ellis was helping his customers at The Shoe Tree, a store he’s run for 30 years.
He said the pandemic hit during a down time in between winter and summer when sales are generally low.

"Our big concern for the next few weeks is getting something to sell now that we’re open." - Bob Woodworth, Burrows Specialized Sports

Ellis thinks the worst is behind him.

Even with lingering questions about inter-state tourists, the economy and maybe some shoppers who are still a little hesitant to come out, Ellis said opening his door Monday felt really good.

“I think we’re ready to move on. I mean, I know there’s going to be fallout,” said Ellis. “You know, it’s just bound to happen when you have something as catastrophic as this. But, you know, I think especially with the weather improving, people are ready to get out and they’re ready to do some shopping.”

Governor Scott is expected to make some decisions soon about hair salons and restaurants as Vermont’s downtowns slowly come back to life.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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