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‘I put my heart, blood and soul into this store’: Mumbai Boutique in Clarksville surviving during COVID pandemic

For the past 15 months, Nisha Sheth said she has done everything she can to save her livelihood and her life’s work: the Mumbai Boutique in Clarksville.

Sheth, 40, a Clarksville resident, has spent the past three years building up her Indo-Western women’s clothing store, with everything from saris and langas, to gowns and kaftans, designed by her and created in India. Now she’s fighting to keep her store, a mix of American and Indian cultures, open as COVID-19 restrictions lift in the United States and cases continue to spread in India.

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“I’d only been in business for 18 months before COVID hit. I didn’t get the chance to fully be in business. I had just started out,” Sheth said. “I put my heart, blood and soul into this store.”

In India, she has a team of 40 to 50 people who do the ordering, designing and manufacturing. Besides Sheth, all of her team members are an ocean away. They use a shared manufacturing space in Mumbai, a place Sheth has been unable to see since January 2020.

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Ordinarily, Sheth visits Mumbai twice annually to bring new lines of clothing back to the store. The last time she was able to go was October 2019. In 2017 and 2018, she went to India a total of seven times, designing and shipping back supplies for her boutique.

Sheth’s team had to stop working March 3, 2020, due to coronavirus restrictions. Though there have been periods of time when they have been able to go back to the factory, it hasn’t been consistent, she said.

“My material, my inventory, my embroidery, everything was just sitting,” Sheth said. “What happens in India is that people work so close to each other, everything had to be on lockdown.”

Nisha Sheth, 40, of Clarksville, opened her Mumbai Boutique in Clarksville in 2018. She has had a difficult time operating during the coronavirus pandemic as some of her employees in India have died and she's had trouble selling inventory.
Nisha Sheth, 40, of Clarksville, opened her Mumbai Boutique in Clarksville in 2018. She has had a difficult time operating during the coronavirus pandemic as some of her employees in India have died and she's had trouble selling inventory. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

When India did begin to reopen last summer, internal travel was allowed in the country, making it possible for Sheth’s employees to go back to work creating outfits. That lasted for months as India eased restrictions; by February of this year, however, cases began rising and, when spring hit, India saw a huge second surge. Numbers there remain high, with 3,300 confirmed deaths in India on Monday; in the U.S., there were 145.

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Sheth’s boutique was closed for four months early on in the pandemic, fighting with her landlord to keep the storefront. Luckily Sheth said she got her rent backdated for six months after allying with other businesses in her shopping center.

“That’s the only reason we were able to survive,” Sheth said.

Sheth spent time talking with other minority-owned businesses about how they were planning to get through the difficult time and what resources they were utilizing at what levels. She received a Small Business Administration loan, an Economic Injury Disaster Loan and a CARES Act grant from the county.

“We would never get by without the loan[s]. I almost thought my doors were going to close. I was really scared,” she said.

Friend Yolanda Vazquez, 51, who works in the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office, also helped Sheth along the way.

“It wasn’t just about her store in Clarksville — it was about helping employee folks in India, too,” said Vazquez, a Columbia resident. “I watched my friend who had a thriving business die inside. It was a really difficult time for her, like other business owners.”

Vazquez said she was talking to the Howard County Economic Development Authority, trying to get Howard County Executive Calvin Ball out to the store and trying to get exposure for the boutique during the mostly stagnant pandemic months.

“It was heartbreaking for me to watch her because I knew how much she had to put into the store,” Vazquez said. “Good clothing is good clothing. I would hate for her to build this and for it to fail because of [COVID-19].”

From her last trip in October 2019, Sheth exported 120 pieces to sell in her store. She’s been selling about five pieces a month; 70 of them are still left from that shipment.

“After July and August [of 2020], people started coming but it was minimal,” Sheth said. “I’m starting to see a lot more faces now than I have in the last nine months.”

With money already invested in the manufacturing, Sheth is awaiting the outfits she designed over a year ago. She needs India’s COVID-19 restrictions to be loose enough that her employees can go back to work. With the springtime surge, however, that’s become less likely.

Also because of that surge, Sheth has lost two employees to the coronavirus who she worked closely with, one in February and one in November.

The Mumbai Boutique in Clarksville sells Indo-Western women’s clothing store, with everything from saris and langas, to gowns and kaftans, designed by Nisha Sheth and created in India.
The Mumbai Boutique in Clarksville sells Indo-Western women’s clothing store, with everything from saris and langas, to gowns and kaftans, designed by Nisha Sheth and created in India. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

Sheth said the deaths were particularly hard for her other employees who couldn’t meet in person together to mourn their colleagues. She sent what money she could to help her team go back and forth from Mumbai, where they were working, to the villages where they live.

To rent the floor of a factory she usually does for her employees to make the outfits, Sheth needs revenue she doesn’t presently have.

While she waits for normalcy to return, Sheth said she’s using this time to be creative. “All you can do is imagine and sketch,” she said.

She’s also pushed her personal life to the side to save her business.

“I had to push back my wedding to next year. The only mortgage I have is my store mortgage. I haven’t been able to cash a paycheck in a year. I’m surviving,” she said.

Customers like Jacqueline Easley, 46, said Sheth’s energy and commitment to her business are what have helped her survive this difficult time.

“When COVID happened, I knew how it was going to affect so many people who had businesses. I worried for her,” said Easley, a Fulton resident. “When she could have let [it] bring her down, she had a very positive perspective about it. I’ve been such an admirer; she’s an example of a strong independent person who has a very positive perspective about life. She’s going to rise again, I know it.”

Last week Sheth got word from India that her team was allowed to work in the factory every day until 4 p.m., bringing her one step closer to seeing her new collection. So she’s moving forward, too, scheduling a July 8 happy hour at her boutique to show off the new clothes, the first of which arrived at her Clarksville store Tuesday.

“I want to save my business. That’s all I have. That is my passion, that is my everything,” Sheth said.

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