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Main Street stores in Laurel continue to scuffle to survive amid coronavirus pandemic

This past Friday, Kristen Kane served up a cinnabun cheesecake shake at Rise Up Nutrition; Vickie Bell took an order at Basket Treats by Alexis Streets for cupcakes to be picked up later, and, at More than Java Cafe, Tabitha Clark prepared a sandwich to go.

While business along Laurel’s historic Main Street wasn’t exactly bustling on this humid afternoon, shops were open and there were customers. After months of being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and government restrictions, it hasn’t been an easy time for many of the business owners and many still face uncertainties.

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‘We’re trying to get the word out,” said Vickie Bell, manager of Basket Treats by Alexis Streets, about the store’s reopening in the beginning of August after being closed for five months. “It’s good to be home again.”

The dessert and event planning company kept going during the shutdown with its mobile food truck business, the Dessert Junkie, Bell said. Her daughter, Alexis Streets, owner of Basket Treats, was able to cut a deal with the storefront’s landlord to pay rent. Now, the two are slowly rebuilding their inventory for the shop at 349 Main St. by introducing popular desserts weekly — cupcakes the first week with cheesecakes scheduled to return the following week followed by cake jars, milkshakes and more.

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“People come in and say ‘I need my cupcake,‘ ” Bell said, laughing. “I don’t know how people survive without sugar. Sugar is my drug.”

There has been plenty of drive-by traffic, Bell said, but foot traffic has been slow. Desserts, she said, are not food, and she realizes that many people have more pressing needs.

“If you have food, you are doing well. We have sweets, not food,” Bell said. “Folks with little shops … we’re working our way back. "

The owners of More than Java Cafe permanently closed its two Bethesda locations, leaving only the doors of its original Laurel location at 358 Main St. open throughout the pandemic.

“The community has been really good to us,” said Tabitha Clark, co-owner of More than Java along with her husband, Ronnie Clark. “It’s tough. We can keep our doors open, but we still can’t bring back our staff.”

Before the pandemic, Clark had 10 employees. Now, she and her husband run the business, with their daughter helping out when needed.

Once popular for offering various programs including open mic performances and art receptions, the small cafe remains closed for indoor seating, Clark said, because its limited space makes it difficult for social distancing. There is only one table outdoors, too.

“Everybody wants to sit down,” Clark said. “We want people to feel safe and comfortable. Things are still very scary.”

Many Main Street businesses around the state are struggling, and Laurel’s is no different, according to Leigha Steele, economic development coordinator for the city of Laurel. Her office and the city are working to help businesses by providing the latest financial resources and options available to them. The city is also waiving permits for temporary signage and has made it easier for restaurants to provide outdoor seating.

“We are dedicated to our businesses. We know how hard it is,” Steele said. “Most Main Street businesses are small, with under 10 employees. They do not have as many resources as a large company.”

Cindy Senter, owner of the Chamber Room at 353 Main St., was disappointed in the city’s guidelines for reopening.

“There were no ground rules for what and how many people could come in the store,” Senter said. “There are two of us here. We decided four people total. We were comfortable with that.”

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With a storefront jam-packed with a variety of items from figurines to bags, face masks and more, Senter didn’t bother doing online sales, choosing to remain closed until she could reopen the store.

“Online sales would have made us crazy,” Senter said. “We are really glad to see people.”

She and her husband, Paul, have been able to keep their business going because of careful planning in the past and loyal customers.

“I never thought this would happen in my lifetime,” Senter said. “There is nothing you can do. You have to have back-up plans. This has not taken us out.”

Audrey Sturdivant, owner of Grace Boutique & Wellness at 401 Main St., is in the final stages of closing her business after almost seven years on Main Street. While the pandemic did play a role in her decision, family health concerns drove played a larger role in her decision to close, she said.

“I’ve had a good run. No complaints,” Sturdivant said. “People have been very kind to us, but it is time to go.”

Sturdivant has seen many businesses come and go over the years, and believes the mayor and City Council should focus more on Main Street rather than shopping centers.

“Business has to be better than just surviving,” Sturdivant said. “If I see a new business survive one year, I’m tickled.”

She is impressed with the support her fellow Main Street businesses have given each other and is excited about the variety of restaurants Main Street now boasts.

“Every day, you can have a different meal,” Sturdivant said. “All of us try to help each other.”

Kristen Kane, co-owner of Rise Up Nutrition, also is thankful for the support she has received from fellow business owners.

“Main Street businesses are really good to each other,” Kane said. “If you are looking for food, we’ll tell you where to go. It’s that kind of community.”

Like More than Java, Rise Up Nutrition used to offer numerous community programs. It is slowly starting some again, including its walking club on Saturday mornings and an Outdoor FitClub on Wednesdays.

“We have a very good curbside business. People have been good to us,” Kane said. “We were able to pay the bills. It is not the ideal way to launch our second year of business, but we are not going anywhere.”

When she closed in March, Tonya Jones used the time to turn her optical care store of 10 years into the consignment shop The Treasure Chest. Her optical business expanded to a hospital in Baltimore, providing her the opportunity to open the new shop — an option most business owners on Main Street do not have. To help business owners whose only income is their storefront, Main Street needs a “face-lift” in order to become a destination, she said.

“Nice lights, beautiful planters. Small little touches really make a difference,” Jones said. “People want to come shop at places that look nice ... and makes them proud to shop on that street. ‘I got this on Main Street in Laurel. It’s a nice place. You should go there.’ ”

Steele asks that all businesses, especially those struggling, contact her office (ecd@laurel.md.us or 301-725-5300) to learn how the city can help support them.

“We want to make it as easy as possible to stay open,” Steele said. “If anybody needs help from the city, reach out to us.”

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