‘I am scared. I don’t know if we will make it through’: Berkeley business owners on coping with COVID-19

With streets deserted and most people at home because of self-isolation mandates, Berkeley businesses are hurting. On March 18, just two days after the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, Mayor Jesse Arreguín estimated that businesses had seen a 25-75% drop in gross receipts. The decline has probably accelerated since then.

To help small businesses, arts nonprofits and tenants, the city and business and community leaders on Sunday launched the Berkeley Relief Fund. Once it is up and running, it will hand out small grants to help institutions and people weather these difficult times. The city of Berkeley has pledged to contribute $3 million to the fund. Corporations and community members have so far chipped in another $556,000, including $250,000 from Bayer US, which has operations in West Berkeley. Organizers are hoping to raise as much as $6 million.

Berkeleyside reached out to a few local business owners to talk to them about the impacts they are experiencing from the coronavirus and the shelter-in-place order.

The toy store: “Everything came to a screeching halt”

Stephanie Sala, owner of Five Little Monkeys sorts through various orders that either can or cannot be filled. Photo: Pete Rosos

Stephanie Sala, the owner of Five Little Monkeys, a children’s toy store with branches around the Bay Area, had already been making contingency plans for her business when the shelter-in-place order came down on March 16. Aware of people’s concerns about coronavirus, she had been thinking about a concierge service where people could look at toys over the phone and pick them up curbside.


That all changed when Berkeley’s health officer ordered all non-essential businesses to shut by 12:01 a.m. March 17. With no sales expected at her stores, which include a warehouse on Tenth Street and a retail store on Fourth Street, Sala had to lay off her 50 employees.

“All of a sudden everything came to a screeching halt,” said Sala. I had “the realization that this cash flow I had humming along all of a sudden came to a halt. It’s been really, really hard.”

Hardest of all was suddenly telling the people who had worked for her that they no longer had jobs and that she could not tell them when Five Little Monkeys would reopen.

On March 20, Sala sent out an email to her customers — and got a response she hadn’t expected.

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“We have always tried to do our best to support our local community by donating to schools, by donating toys to those in need, organizing toy drives after natural disasters, and sponsoring local youth sports teams,” Sala wrote in the email. “Now we need the community to return the favor.”

Bags of Five Little Monkeys toy orders ready to head out. Photo: Pete Rosos

The community rallied. Online sales surged, said Sala. That has allowed her to rehire a few employees. The sales are also keeping her busy fulfilling orders at her warehouse. But online sales have only ever been a small part of her revenue, and she still has rent on six spaces and vendors to pay. Sala is not certain what the weeks ahead will bring.

“I am scared,” she said. “I don’t know if we will make it through. I am hopeful but there is a piece of me that doesn’t know.”

The gas station: Business is down 75%

The second-generation owner of Coast Gas Station and Bridgeway Service, Steve Carvalho, sits behind the register. He’s determined to stick it out. Photo: Pete Rosos

About 36 hours after the Bay Area shelter-in-place order kicked in, business was way down at Coast Gas Station and Bridgeway Service on Claremont Boulevard and Ashby Avenue. Normally, the filling station (which sells Coast gasoline) has about 25 to 30 customers by 8:30 a.m. That morning, about half that many had shown up.

Fast forward a few days. Nothing had improved. Usually Bridgeway is a regular stop for people who live in Contra Costa County and drive to work at UC Berkeley. On Monday, Steve Carvalho, Bridgeway’s owner, said no one had gotten gas between 7 and 9 a.m. In the next few hours, there were only about seven to 10 customers. Most people are just staying at home.

“There are cars on the road,” said Carvalho. “If they go to the grocery store and home they’re not going to burn a tank of gas.”

A mechanics bench inside the shop at Bridgeway Service gas station. Photo: Pete Rosos

As an “essential” business that can remain open, Carvalho has it luckier than most. He is allowed to pump customers’ gas and to fix their cars. Still, business is down 75%, said Carvalho. He sent one of his two employees on vacation, he said.

Carvalho has one advantage: he owns the land the filling station sits on. His family started Bridgeway in Oakland 72 years ago and moved it to Berkeley around 1943 or ’44. He took over operations from his parents.

“I can ask my landlord not to charge me any rent,” Carvalho joked. He is concerned about the business environment and says it is much worse than the days after 9/11. But Carvalho said he expects to pull through.

“I can weather it fairly good. I won’t pay myself. As an owner-operator, you pay your employees and you pay your bills. You don’t pay yourself.”

The hair salon: “Everything is uncertain.”

The exterior of Vika Beauty Salon on Sacramento Street. Photo: Pete Rosos

Virginia Perez opened her own hair salon, Vika Salon, at 2442 Sacramento St. around 12 years ago. The reviews on Yelp are exemplary and speak to the care and attention Perez pays customers. “Vika (Virginia) is fantastic! I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is the best haircut I’ve had my entire life,” one customer wrote. “Victoria is amazing! She did wonders with my flat, lifeless, thin hair and made me look awesome,” wrote another.

The March 16 shelter-in-place order ended those interactions with customers, as hairdressers are not considered essential businesses. Since then, Perez has been grappling with numerous questions about how she will keep her business going.

“It’s only me, I do everything,” she said. “It makes me feel worried because I have to keep paying rent and expenses. I haven’t been in contact with the building owners. I don’t know what’s next, everything’s uncertain.”

Perez no longer has any income. She said she might be able to keep going for about three months. She doesn’t want to leave the area. “The people here are nice to me and this neighborhood is really nice. The diversity and culture help me too,” she said.

What Perez wants most of all is information, particularly from the city about how she can get assistance: “Maybe if the city gave a guide for the best way to reach institutions to give help,” she said. “For now, the main thing is getting information. We listen to the news, but we don’t know how to access it.” (Some of Perez’s clients have set up a Go Fund Me campaign for her).

The bookstores: Online sales helping somewhat

A fitting window display in Ms. Dalloway’s Bookstore on College Avenue. Photo: Pete Rosos

The display in Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore on College Avenue reflects the harrowing times. Their “mascot,” a mannequin nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway, the Virginia Woolf character, is wearing a face mask and is holding a roll of toilet paper. She is surrounded by books with titles like Outsmarting Worry, The Uninhabitable Earth, Manual for Survival and When the Sky Fell on Splendor.

Normally, March and April are busy months for the store, as publishers put out their spring releases, according to Marion Abbott, one of the bookstore’s co-owners. The authors Lily King and Adam Hochschild were lined up to speak. The store was excited about the April release of a memoir, Everything is Under Control, by Phyllis Grant, a Berkeley cook who shares her life stories on her blog and Instagram account, Dash and Bella. “We would have sold a lot of her books,” said Abbott. “I feel terrible for these authors” who have books coming out during the shelter-in-place order, she added. All of that was canceled.

Mrs. Dalloway’s shut its doors on March 17 and has paid its 12 employees through then. Business has dropped by two-thirds or three-fourths, Abbott said. The store has been eking out some income through online sales. Each Saturday, the store posts a recommended read on its Instagram account. It communicates with its customers on Facebook and through regular newsletters.

Mrs. Dalloway’s shut its doors on March 17, the day after the shelter-in-place order came down. Photo: Pete Rosos

The customer response has been fantastic, with steady online sales of books and gift certificates, but Abbott is concerned. April 1 looms and she hasn’t yet talked to her landlord about rent. The store stopped getting any new books, but it still has to pay outstanding invoices to distributors.

“I think we can hobble along for another month or so,” said Abbott. “If people step up and order online — that will keep us alive for a while.”

Amy Thomas, the “president for life” of the three branches of Pegasus Books in Berkeley and Oakland, is also relying on online sales to keep her bookstores operating. The stores employ 34 people, many of whom have been there for years. Thomas had to lay them off, but is using some of the store’s funds to make extra payments to employees in need, she said. The store has ramped up its social media to encourage customers to buy online. She also plans to talk to her suppliers and landlords about her next payments.

“We are laser-focused on making it through this,” said Thomas, who acquired the stores in 1995. “We have been through some dreadful times before because we are a bookstore in America.”

The music venue: “It’s terrifying.”

UC Theatre Founder & CEO David Mayeri in front of the theater entrance. The marquee sign has been changed to reflect the theater being closed for at least the next three months. Photo: Pete Rosos

On March 6, the UC Theatre Taube Family Music Hall had a full roster of music shows planned, from Pussy Riot to Music of Queen For Kids and The Chats. Patrons have been enjoying the diversity of music on offer at the venue, which opened in 2016, as well as its food and bar service and sound system. On March 7, David Mayeri, who led the drive to transform the decaying movie theater on University Avenue into a 1,400-person music hall, canceled shows through the end of May because of the threat of the coronavirus.

Without the ticket sales cash flow, which makes up 60% of UC Theatre’s revenue, the nonprofit organization is struggling, Mayeri said. It’s not only future performances at risk. There are 75 people on the payroll who are now out of work. And one of UC Theatre’s main missions — to train young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in the nuts and bolts of the music business — from creating financial spreadsheets, to selling tickets, booking talent and running a show — is in peril. The shelter-in-place order has interrupted the venue’s nine-month training program for 20 students, moved meetings to virtual hangouts, and deprived the students on hands-on training.

“It’s a rough time for everyone and we want to stay connected to our team,” said Mayeri. “We’re a family.”

Degen, part of the now interrupted music education program at the UC Theatre, checks the letters he plans on posting on the Theatre’s marquee. Photo: Pete Rosos

UC Theatre’s other revenue stream is tax-deductible contributions and Mayeri and his board are asking the community to donate generously during this difficult time. How well that will work is still unclear because the stock market has gone through wild gyrations in the past few weeks. Many businesses are shuttered, and there is so much uncertainty about the future — not ideal circumstances in which to seek donations. In addition, there is competition for funds because most other arts organizations are facing similar challenges and all are reaching out to their own communities.

The UC Theatre is trying to connect with people in every way it can think of, including emails asking for support, requests via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google ads, and loans and grants from local, state and federal sources.

“We’re going through a three-month period where there is no revenue,” said Mayeri. “We have a short-term cash crisis…. Hopefully, it’s just for three months.”

Many larger music producers have moved shows to the fall, including Coachella, and bands scheduled for then are looking to book local shows, said Mayeri, He can see a time in the not too distant future where music show revenue will flow again.

“We’re optimistic about the future,” said Mayeri. “We have to get through these three months. It’s terrifying. We are looking to the community to support us.”

Natalie Orenstein contributed reporting to this story.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.