As the owner of three shops in Rockport’s Bearskin Neck, Lisa Gove knows firsthand the struggles so many Massachusetts store owners endured just staying afloat in a year of pandemic.
“The first half of the year was very uncertain and scary. We didn’t know how long we’d be closed, and once we opened how long that would be,” she recalled, adding that while her sales eventually picked up, they still finished 15 percent below a normal year.
But as the pandemic recedes, Gove sees signs all around her that the bleakness of the past year is lifting, and that a busy summer lies ahead for her shops and others in Rockport’s scenic downtown.
”A lot of customers come in saying that ‘this is the first time I’ve been out,’ or that they feel more confident now knowing they are vaccinated,” said Gove, who owns The Glass House glassware and gift shop, the adjoining Happy Whale toys and game store, and — as of February — Alexander’s Pottery.
With its iconic waterfront and diverse array of small shops, Gove thinks Rockport can be an especially appealing destination for people eager to return to in-person shopping, but wanting to do it safely.
“The Rockport experience is a very outdoors one, and I think that is something people are interested in,” she said. “They can wander in and out of small shops but they are mostly outdoors.”
Gove’s cautious optimism is shared by other shopkeepers and business leaders in Rockport and several other Boston area communities, who believe small retailers — particularly in distinctive downtowns — are well-positioned to lure pandemic-weary shoppers.
Joan Lyons, owner of Three Daughters Jewelry on the Plymouth waterfront, said it was a “dismal year” for her business, but a recent uptick in sales makes her hopeful about the summer.
“People are just happy to be out,” she said. “Old customers we hadn’t seen in a while are feeling like they can come out now that they are vaccinated, and I think they are probably feeling more comfortable coming to a smaller store than they would a bigger store.”
“We have customers coming in with big smiles on their faces saying they are so glad to be here,” said Ginger McEachern, co-owner of Five Crows Gallery and Handcrafted Gifts in Natick Center.
“People are more inclined to visit small shops like ours because they don’t tend to have 20 or 30 people in them like a larger store,” McEachern said, adding that she also is seeing a desire “to stay a little closer to home and see what the town has to offer” among Natick residents.
Eujin Neilan, owner of Uni-T in Natick Center, also sees advantages now for smaller retail shops, particularly those like hers that feature locally made goods. Neilan sells her own hand-printed T-shirts, paintings, and drawings she and other area artists create, along with gifts in the shop that also is her studio.
“People love coming to small unique stores,” she said, “and to support the local people who make their goods.”
Some shop owners say that many of the factors fueling their hopes for the summer also helped them weather the pandemic.
In Rockport, Gove credited the support her business got from area residents as a reason her losses were not as severe as she had feared.
“They saved us,” she said. “They came out and supported the smaller retailers so we could survive. It was wonderful.”
Peter Webber, senior vice president of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce and a Rockport resident, said that from the start of the pandemic, “the community has rallied behind their friends and neighbors who own businesses and made a special effort to shop locally.”
Lyons said Plymouth residents kept her business going during the most difficult days, including stopping by to purchase gift certificates. “The town really embraced its small shops.”
Like many small retailers across the region, Natick’s Neilan said she was helped by being able to sell her merchandise online to partly offset the drop in in-person visits to her shop during the pandemic.
“Because of the online business, I was able to get by,” she said.
Christina Willcox, owner of the Rockport Candle Company, said that her store actually had a “banner year,” which she attributed to her location in Bearskin Neck and the fact that people identified her scent-infused candles with special places ― like the sea — that they missed.
Willcox sees that momentum carrying into the summer, observing, “People are very excited to be out and what better place to walk around, breathe the fresh ocean air, and celebrate newfound freedom, than Rockport.”
With initiatives like marketing assistance and special events, municipal and business organizations are supporting the effort to bring customers to downtown areas.
Natick is using state funds to help businesses promote themselves. On June 3, the Natick Center Cultural District began a new season of Natick Nights!, the summertime program that brings arts and entertainment to the center Thursday nights.
“People are eager to come out not only to support the businesses but to be with one another in a safe way,” said Athena Pandolf, the center’s executive director.
In August, the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce plans to make the downtown a local site for Park(ing) Day, an event in which businesses temporarily convert parking spaces into tiny parks for public enjoyment. Also in August, Plymouth is holding its annual waterfront festival and Bark in the Park dog festival, according to Amy Naples, the chamber’s executive director.
“I think it’s going to be a great summer. People want to get out,” Naples said. “We have shops with some unique gifts and other nice items that will draw people in. And at a small business, you get a very friendly welcome.”
With state funds, Rockport recently installed planters throughout its downtown. The town also is helping stores with marketing and social media through a separate state grant, according to Mechelle Brown, Rockport’s director of the cultural district and community engagement.
“It’s just a fun community, and when people come here, they feel like they are part of it and enjoy that,” Brown said.
With the hopes for a season of recovery for small retailers, there also are notes of caution.
Pandolf said she is concerned that after 15 months of struggling to stay afloat, Natick’s business owners are feeling “depleted, a bit burned out, beleaguered, from what they have just endured.” But she thinks things are looking up for them.
“They will survive,” she said. “The Natick community loves small businesses and is willing to support them.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.