'Austin is where we want to be'

Despite pandemic, looting West Side small businesses still loyal to community

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

On June 6, less than a week after the wave of looting swept through West Garfield Park's Madison Street corridor, Out of the Past Records store, which has been operating at 4407 W. Madison St. since 1986, was open for business. 

Marie Henderson, who founded the store with her husband, Charlie Henderson, said that the store has been struggling throughout the pandemic. And while it wasn't looted, in the month after the reopening, the business hasn't fully rebounded to where it was pre-COVID-19. 

The Hendersons are among a handful of small business owners on the West Side who were interviewed about how they've fared since the pandemic and the death of George Floyd. 

Some of the entrepreneurs reported an increase in profits while others found their business model completely disrupted. 

The Hendersons said that at one point they owned 12 record stores throughout Chicago, but as tapes and later CDs became popular, the demand for records plummeted and they wound up consolidating their inventory into their current location.

"We never tried to change and we never jumped to conclusions," Marie said. "My husband said, 'I ain't selling my records.' Because, he said, people be looking for that stuff. And he was right."

When Out of the Past had to close after the looting, customers kept up with their demands for product, so the Hendersons wound up doing curbside pick-up.

"It wasn't that great, because I lost a lot of business," Marie said. "And the business hasn't been so good [since reopening]."

She said that while she was aware of grant opportunities like the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program, she wasn't able to apply. 

Meanwhile, the neighboring King's Hardware, 4415 W. Madison St., never had to close because, as a hardware store, it was considered an essential business. Owner Duane Ehresman said that the store actually got more business since the pandemic hit.

"We're probably up 40 percent," he said. "I think, with people staying at home, people decide to improve their apartments and houses, so people are buying lots of things to fix it up."

Because of the boost in sales, Ehresman said, he didn't need to apply for any financial aid. But that isn't to say COVID-19 hasn't hurt the business at all. Ehresman said that he and three of his employees contracted the virus. While he and two of his employees have recovered, another employee is still recuperating three months later. 

Like King's Hardware, Physical Therapy and Cafe integrated (PTCi), 5515 W. North Ave., never had to close. The business, which sells juices, smoothies, teas, soups and sandwiches, closed its dining area and switched exclusively to carry-out and delivery.

Justine Dela Cruz, the manager and daughter of the owner, said that her family's business saw an uptick in sales, as well. 

Customers were interested in buying products that would improve their health and strengthen their immune systems, which may not protect them from COVID-19, but at least makes it more likely that they will get through the disease without complications. 

Cruz said that the family business did not need to apply for financial aid, but even if aid were necessary, she and her family doesn't believe in it.

"Because we're Christian, we don't really ask for help," she said, adding that they believe that God will provide if things do go bad.

Cruz said there's nothing wrong with other businesses asking for help; in fact, she said, she knew of several that were struggling and said she hoped they would get the financial assistance. 

Unlike some essential businesses on the West Side, Crystal Dyer, the owner of Gone Again Travel and Tours, 5940 W. Chicago Ave., didn't have the option of doing carry-outs or curbside pick-ups to stay afloat.

"[In mid-March], I had clients that were going to Africa, going to France, going to Italy," Dyer recalled. "As a travel company, I [ended up] out of commission. I had to refund all of their bookings. It wiped out my income for the entire year."

"A lot of people are still very hesitant to book anything, because, you know, what the media is saying," Dyer said. "I just got some calls [in June], but when people had to pay their deposits, they hesitated."

Dyer said that she has put together newsletter to share positive news with her customers and keep her business visible. She's also organized community events, both online and in-person. Dyer said that she's received small private grants and loans, but is always looking for other funding opportunities. 

None of the businesses whose owners were interviewed were damaged by the looting. Dyer said that the strip of Chicago Avenue where she's located did not see any looting. Out of the Past Records was not hit at all. Ehresman said that, while looters did try to break into King's Hardware, neighbors intervened before they could do any damage. 

"The neighbors actually kept the looters from coming in here, so we were never hit," he said. 

While a number of stores around the intersection of North and Central avenues were hit, Cruz said that neighbors intervened to protect their business, as well.

"When people not from our neighborhood tried to break into the store, they protected our store," she said.

"A lot of people are saying, 'You should open in Wicker Park,' but this is the place where God placed us," Cruz said. "[Austin] is a place where we want to be."

"Since we've been here, we went through the storm of [the riots that erupted after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death] in 1968," Henderson said. "We've been through the riot that just happened this year and we're still standing. I say we've been blessed."

Email: igorst3@hotmail.com

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