By Holland Snipes
Sisters Nadia and Vera Lee sat in their Downtowne Bookstore on a slow Monday afternoon.
A few people came in to browse but the store has seen busier days.
“Our store sales this year were about 50% of our previous year, but our online sales were about 60% better,” Vera Lee said. “We still had an overall rather large decrease but most of that was in store.”
Businesses in downtown Riverside are still facing hardships after a year of lockdown mandates and restrictions. In a normal year, the area receives thousands of visitors from events that bring tourists and locals to the downtown blocks.
The monthly Art Walk, Riverside Lunar Festival and the Mission Inn’s Festival of Lights during the winter all have their own vendors and audiences. But all of these events were canceled in the past year due to COVID-19.
Without the Festival of Lights, Vera Lee said December at the Downtowne Bookstore was dead.
Vera Lee remembered how window shoppers would be attracted particularly during the festival.
“We always did very well during December with the Festival of Lights,” she said. “ A lot of people would come in here and look around while waiting for their carriage rides.”
Misty Johnson, manager at Dragonmarsh, a spiritual supply store, had similar sentiments.
“Christmastime is the time where people, quote-unquote, find us,” Johnson said. “They come down: people from other parts of the city, other parts of the state, from other states. They come down to see the lights.”
Some downtown businesses have benefited through some support from state funding and local partnerships.
CeeAnn Thiel, owner of Mrs. Tiggy Winkles Gift Shoppe, the oldest store on the block, mentioned that she is currently waiting for her second small business loan.
“Out of Joe Biden’s kindness,” Thiel joked while discussing the newest round of loans coming out.
While the partnership and government have been helpful to some, others expressed feeling abandoned during this time.
Johnson said she feels Dragonmarsh has been left out of the loans because of the nature of her business.
“We’re kind of in this weird niche because we’re not a restaurant, we’re not a bar,” she said. “We’re retail but we sell food. Plus, we have some medicine. It’s a weird category.”
Dragonmarsh receives support from its GoFundMe page and tips given through online orders or Pepper’s Tip Jar, Pepper being the store cat.
The majority of stores downtown have changed their hours as a result of a drastic drop in funds. Tiggy Winkles went from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., while Downtowne Bookstore initially had to cut all the way down to 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The bookstore was able to extend its hours to 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. because of Riverside County moving into the red tier, which loosened restrictions. The business owners reminisce about previous Festival of Lights events, when they sometimes stayed open until 11 p.m.
Dragonmarsh went from seven days a week 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a weekend closing time of 8 p.m., to six days a week, from noon to 6:30 p.m.
Before COVID-19, businesses around the block would have extended these hours even further to accommodate for the Festival of Lights traffic. With its cancellation, the block was quiet by their usual closing times.
The money made during the festival was essential to many businesses in the area, who gathered new customers and hordes of holiday shoppers. Unfortunately for some businesses, this season’s lack of a festival was a hard blow to their profits.
Vera Lee said the bookstore’s overall sales were worse in December than in November. Thiel said she and Tiggy Winkles have persevered.
“It’s way down low (for) business, but because I’ve been here so long I can survive,” she said.
But downtown businesses have found new support in online marketing. The sisters noted the helpfulness of online orders before Nadia Lee left to package about $200 worth of internet sales.
“We sell through Amazon,” Nadia Lee said. “You know lots of people think, ‘Oh it’s a big company,’ but actually they’re really good to us small people.”
They have seen a large jump in online buying. Last year their online sales for the month of April surpassed their store sales.
Dragonmarsh believes its large traction of sales is coming from people exploring spiritual beliefs during isolation in this life-changing time.
“Right now there’s been a renaissance of people experiencing and looking for new paths and new religions,” Johnson said. “So we’re getting a lot of people that are new to spirituality and they’re going, ‘Where do I get candles, where do I get herbs?’ And then they’re finding us.”
Support from regulars built up over the decades has helped these businesses tremendously. Forty years of Tiggy Winkles has built a strong base.
“You just have loyal customers,” Thiel said. “Almost like they’re related to you. Some people come in just to see if I’m okay and show me they’re okay. It’s the love, the loyalty. It means a ton to me.”