Susannah Siger has decided to close her boutique, Ma Petite Shoe, due to COVID-19.
With so much still shut down, their absence may not have registered yet.
But as other restaurants pull out tables for outdoor dining, other stores offer curbside pickup and other school bells resume ringing at least virtually in the fall, that’s when what’s been lost these past three months will hit.
“It’s like we’re hibernating,” said the Rev. Christopher V. Pyles, rector of Grace and St. Peter’s Church. “So much will be changed when we wake up.”
The church’s Wilkes School has decided to close after nearly 75 years in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. No longer will the first graders whose classroom is next door to Pyles’ office pop in to pet his dog Penny; no longer will area residents and workers see the blue-uniformed students, like something out of the Madeline children’s books, walking to the Enoch Pratt Central Library or the Walters Art Gallery.
The school is one of the nonmedical casualties of the coronavirus, among the local institutions, restaurants, stores and other businesses that won’t survive the shutdown measures ordered to curtail its spread — or the uncertainty of when, if or how the restrictions will be fully lifted.
The closure of all but essential businesses, which since mid-March has shuttered such gathering spots as shopping malls, movie theaters and gyms, has claimed victims large and small, with such retailers as the 118-year-old J.C. Penney filing for bankruptcy and announcing store closures and independent mom-and-pop shops and eateries calling it quits.
Revenue losses mounted with each day of closure, business owners said, and couldn’t be recouped by takeout, delivery, curbside pickup or even an eventual reopening.
"We can’t recover from being closed so long,” said Susannah Siger, owner of Ma Petite Shoe in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood. “We’re not the kind of business model that can survive this.
“I’m a survivor, but at some point, you realize the odds are stacked against you,” said Siger, who opened her store 18 years ago. “And is it really worth it?”
Siger, whose shop sold a quirky mix of shoes, chocolates and accessories, said she wasn’t even sure what business would look like on the other side of the pandemic, particularly for a hands-on shop like hers wedged inside a renovated rowhouse.
“We’re a touchy, feely store,” Siger said. “I don’t think we even have 6 feet [of space] to keep away from people.”
Business groups say many retailers and restaurants will shutter for good, unable to pay their rent, utilities or vendors while they are closed or operating at less than full capacity. And they are unsure how to shift business models to accommodate the social distancing and other precautions that could outlast the pandemic.
“It’s like we’re hibernating. So much will be changed when we wake up.”
The Rev. Christopher V. Pyles, rector of Grace and St. Peter’s Church, whose Wilkes School has decided to close after nearly 75 years in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood
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On social media, feeds are filled with business owners waving the white flag, or rumors of this yoga studio or that antique store considering or deciding to permanently close. Each post seems to trigger regrets and memories, of the shrimp salad at one restaurant or of going with Grandma to another.
The toll promises to be grim. More than a third of 5,850 small businesses surveyed this spring by Main Street America, a national network that helps revitalize older, historic commercial districts, said they were at risk of closing permanently if restrictions lasted up to two months. More than two-thirds said they likely wouldn’t last if the disruption to their business lasted up to five months.
The ripple effects of a shop or cafe closing can extend beyond the owners and their customers.
Despite a phased-in recovery plan that has allowed local governments to partially reopen some businesses and recreation facilities, many are feeling even the temporary loss of neighborhood places that offered casual encounters with what Jennifer Goold calls “familiar strangers."
“Humans are social creatures,” said Goold, executive director of the Neighborhood Design Center in Baltimore, which supports community-based planning to create viable residential and business areas.
“We’re realizing how true that is," she said. "It’s important to see your neighbors, even if you’re not hugging them. We’re missing it.”
The center and the Baltimore Development Corp. are working with public health experts on a $1.6 million initiative to help small businesses reopen safely, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced
They launched a design competition to seek concepts for how to configure public spaces for social distancing, and plan to publish a “pattern book” that businesses and others can use to reopen safely — rather than close their doors permanently.
“You can’t get everything on Amazon,” Goold said. "And in serious situations, if the employees become sick, or if the meat supply chain breaks down, you need the local supply chain.
“The small business culture in Baltimore is so important. And the whole network is important to the resilience of the city.”
The closures extend beyond the city, with some long-standing institutions such as Kirchmayr Chocolatier in Timonium, which opened in 1987, uncertain whether it will ever reopen.
Albert Kirchmayr’s lease was up this spring and at 65 he was reluctant to sign the landlord’s request for an additional five years.
“COVID made it even more of an issue," he said, “not knowing what the future is going to bring.”
The outcry from the community to news that he would close after Easter has him thinking he might eventually open a smaller shop, if only to find someone to train to carry on the tradition.
But with the recession, he is expecting to make less money and finding that landlords are noncommittal, waiting to see what kind of rents they might be able to command in the future.
“They don’t really know," Kirchmyer said, “how this is going to be three months from now.”
In Annapolis, two cafes, Zu Coffee and Ahh Coffee, have announced that they won’t reopen.
“It’s just kind of a part of our life," said Ellen Moyer, a former mayor of Annapolis, who found herself at Ahh Coffee in Eastport one or two times a week. “It’s a tragedy.”
She wonders what will happen to the table of men, including one in his 90s, “who would come every morning to share stories and start the day off right” at the 15-year-old cafe. Where will the local musicians play, how will the artists such as those whose work she bought off its walls garner new eyes?
For Benn Ray, president of the 165-member Hampden Village Merchants Association in Baltimore, the question is who will organize the neighborhood Halloween costume contest now that Siger is closing Ma Petite Shoe.
Ray, who owns Atomic Books, said he’s heard of several other businesses similarly closing up shop, among them the vintage store Milk & Ice, which said on its website it will continue online only and leave its shop on West 36th Street.
Ray said he wouldn’t be surprised if even more joined them as the shutdown stretches on.
“I guess it just depends on how quickly we can safely come out of this,” he said. “The neighborhood has had a natural sort of balance of stuff that ebbed and flowed. I just don’t know what closures will mean for the neighborhood.”
Ricki Rutley, a real estate agent who lives in Bolton Hill, said there are certain places she considers “anchors" of their neighborhoods.
"People count on them being there,” Rutley said, “giving them a sense of security, giving them a sense of community.”
For her, that is the City Cafe in Mount Vernon, which announced that it was closing after 25 years.
It is among a rash of restaurants that have said they won’t be reopening, from Ryleigh’s in Federal Hill to the relatively new Alexander Brown downtown that is housed in the lavish former headquarters of the nation’s first investment bank. They are joined by the Greene Turtle in Fells Point, which didn’t specify its closure was due to the coronavirus shutdown, and Kibby’s on Wilkens Avenue near St. Agnes Hospital, which said on its Facebook page that barring “a miracle” COVID-19 would be the “final nail in the coffin.”
“I think it leaves a hole in our heart,” Rutley said of the City Cafe’s closure. “A whole group of people went there on certain nights — that was our gathering place.
“Other places don’t know what you drink, how you like your fish cooked,” she said. "Over time, you go back, you see the same people, maybe people you didn’t know before, but you become friends.
“You know,” Rutley said, “if you belong.”
Now, she said, she and her friends are in a “quandary" over returning to going out again in the new climate of watchfulness.
“How are we going to adapt? We may limit who we chose to see, who to be in the presence of,” she said. “I want to be among people who still take it seriously and understand we just don’t know everything.”
That closure announcements are coming at a time when businesses and other community mainstays are under a temporary shutdown adds to how disorienting it all seems — there’s no opportunity for a last call or a fond farewell if the doors are already locked.
That is the case with two historic schools that decided to make the temporary closure permanent. Already, school officials said, their enrollments had been declining while costs such as for the upkeep of their aging buildings had been rising — problems exacerbated by the coronavirus shutdown and uncertainty over when it would be lifted.
The Institute of Notre Dame, the state’s oldest Catholic college preparatory school for girls, shocked its devoted alumni, who include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, when it announced in May that it wouldn’t reopen. The school, which had been in the same East Baltimore location for more than 170 years, had survived the Civil War and the 1968 riots.
The Wilkes School was down to 60 students, from a high of about 185 in the 1970s, Pyles said, although its 2- and 3-year-old preschool classes operated at capacity.
“We were optimistic about the future,” he said.
But then, the coronavirus happened and continuing uncertainty over whether classes in the fall would be by remote or at the physical school. Wilkes only received commitments from the parents of 36 students across eight grades to enroll for the next academic year, Pyles said.
The news of its decision to call it a day at the beloved school quickly spread, particularly in the Mount Vernon neighborhood that it considered its campus, with students joining in on the Flower Mart festivities, attending performances at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and creating “blessing bags” to distribute to any homeless people they might encounter.
Margot Kopera, public programs manager at the nearby Maryland Historical Society, said she feels a sense of loss knowing she won’t see the kids working in their school garden or walking together to the neighborhood’s cultural institutions.
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The kids were frequent visitors at the society’s museum, beyond the usual field trips, putting on Greek mythology plays and performing holiday recitals.
Just before the school closed in mid-March, the Wilkes students had completed a particularly cherished tradition — making ceramic hearts that they gave to the businesses and institutions in their neighborhood that then would display them, hanging from ribbons.
“Every year, we look forward to receiving them,” Kopera said.
When she packed up her office after the shutdown, she left her heart behind.
“It’s something to look forward to,” Kopera said, “for when we return.”
Jean Marbella is a reporter on The Sun’s investigative and enterprise team. She joined The Sun in 1987 and has been a features writer, national correspondent, editor and columnist. She was born in Havre de Grace, grew up in Chicago and graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.
Lorraine Mirabella is a business reporter for The Baltimore Sun. She writes about retail, consumer affairs, workplace issues and other financial news. She joined the business staff in 1992 and has covered real estate, energy, manufacturing, business trends and companies such as Under Armour and McCormick & Co. She is a Towson University graduate.