Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
All put out to sea.
In the sanitized version of this nursery rhyme, which I read to my children and grandchildren, no one said why the butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker went out to sea in a tub or what happened to them. Now, I know the answer. They were driven out of business by the Covid-19 pandemic and sailed away in a tub because there was nowhere else to go.
As I drive through my community of Evanston, Illinois, my heart breaks as I see beloved business, small and large, and favorite restaurants boarded up. And it is only late September. What will things look like after we muddle through fall and winter? If we ever arrive at the other end of this nightmare, what will be left?
I have lived in Evanston for almost 50 years. It breaks my heart to see the demise of places like Good’s, an independent picture framing and art supply story that served our community for over 100 years. We have also lost The Unicorn Café, one of the first independent coffee shops where I met my two close friends every Wednesday in that former world when it was easier to maintain connections. And the Little Mexican Café, a local restaurant that was just what its name implies.
Retail stores were struggling before Covid-19 hit our shores. Online shopping was already eating into their ability to make a profit. Gone are chains like Barnes and Noble and The Gap, as well as smaller ones like Williams Shoes, where I think I left behind a $25 off credit on my next pair. Much of Evanston’s local economy is supported by Northwestern University students. Now, only junior and seniors are in the city, and most of their classes are online. They may go to restaurants and coffee shops now, when the weather is still good and they can dine outside. What happens when temperatures hover below freezing and sidewalks are coated with snow and ice? How many businesses will survive?
One of the saddest stories is the small, independent butcher shop I have frequented for years. It was run by two elderly butchers, and the service was excellent if you were patient enough to wait while they prepared and wrapped your order. There were old-fashioned blackboards along the back wall on which the butchers wrote the weather forecast, corny jokes, and things like this:
When you buy from a small business, you are not helping a CEO buy a 3rd holiday home. You’re helping a little girl to get dance lessons, a little boy to afford his team jersey, and their moms and dads to put food on the table. SHOP LOCAL.
During a pre-pandemic visit, I told the butcher I liked his sign and ordered my chicken and some extra things as well. I even felt guilty we no longer eat red meat, as I would have bought more. As he cut up my chicken, the butcher lamented about how difficult it was to stay in business. He told me soon there would not be independent butcher shops. Too hard to make enough money to pay the rent. Too hard to find people who wanted to learn the art of being a butcher. The young man he hired and trained for a year, the man who promised he would buy the shop and carry on the art of preparing food in a respectful way, quit with no notice to work at Costco.
Once the pandemic hit and the young butcher left, the owner was literally out to sea. He had no website explaining his hours on which people could order food for curbside pickup. He had no one to answer the phone to take orders. He didn’t even have an outgoing message to let people know if the shop was open or closed. When I tried to go there, the lights were out, the door was locked, and a paper taped to the door said they would be closed for September. There is a rumor someone may buy the store and attempt to keep it afloat. I hope that’s true.
The bakery near me, with cakes and breads that are fresh and delicious, is still open. People line up socially distanced to go in two at a time to purchase sweet treats, coffee, and bread to get them through endless depressing days. Still, their biggest profit-makers were fancy birthday and wedding cakes. I don’t imagine they are selling many of those. When the weather turns cold and people are no longer willing to wait in lines, will they be able to survive on bread alone?
The candlestick makers must also be struggling since the independent local gift stores with unique items are largely gone. By the time this pandemic is over and shopping will be safe again, people will be in the habit of ordering gifts online and hoping they are what their photos, write-ups, and reviews claim they are. I miss being able to go into the gift store with personal service where I can describe the person I am shopping for and the occasion. I miss the owner suggesting items I could touch and hold. I fear those days are gone forever.
If/when it becomes safe again to venture out into my community, what will be left? Not much, I fear.