Despite the town’s long-standing support of local businesses, these businesses have faced many challenges in recent years in staying afloat and continuing to serve the community. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, high rates of inflation, labor shortages and other logistical challenges, small businesses have been forced to adapt quickly to ever-changing circumstances.
According to Wen, the COVID-19 pandemic presented an array of unforeseen challenges to the Brookline Booksmith. Beyond safety protocols around social distancing and masking, Wen said the Brookline Booksmith is still recovering from the scars of the pandemic with no end in sight.
“I took over before COVID-19, which had a profound impact on our business. It takes more effort now to make the same amount of money or even less than we once did. Everything is more expensive nowadays, whether that is payroll, the cost of supplies or shipping,” Wen said. “In some ways, we are still operating as we did pre-COVID-19, but it is more and more challenging to [run a small business] each day.”
Gozashti said hiring and retaining employees has also been increasingly costly alongside the price of supplies.
“It is endlessly challenging to pay staff a livable wage when Boston is one of the most expensive cities to live in the United States. Livable wage is $22 an hour and increasing, which makes it difficult for us to pay employees and remain profitable,” Gozashti said.
According to Wen, this hiring struggle closely relates to high rates of inflation, which have raised the cost of living, especially in Brookline.
“That [increased cost] makes it harder on our staff because rent and the cost of groceries are high, and while we want to pay our staff a living wage, we are a small business that doesn’t have the funding that giant corporations have,” Wen said. “We have to mind our expenses, which makes it difficult.”
According to Hamilton, the challenges presented by inflation not only pertain to employees but also have a substantial effect on the customer bases of businesses.
“High inflation is a challenge on two fronts: it’s going to affect businesses’ bottom line and it’s going to make it harder for people to justify spending money, meaning that the customer base will fluctuate. That’s a scary idea for businesses,” Hamilton said.
Nelson said the increasing cost of goods has made substantial price increases unavoidable, and rising interest rates leave many businesses unsure of how to proceed, especially with some predicting a recession.
“The cost of goods just keeps going up and up. In order to get out front, you need to increase your prices,” Nelson said. “The customers don’t like the price increases. Now with the rising interest-rate environment, businesses that need capital are impacted.”
According to Liss, rising costs include those of renting. Liss said small businesses have suffered most because of this as larger businesses are typically favored by landlords.
“With higher rents, landlords look at businesses that can pay the rent, so they favor larger businesses. [Landlords] raise the rents and small businesses can’t survive,” Liss said.
The challenges small businesses continue to face in Brookline are can be seen through the data over time, with many storefront changes and new vacancies occurring.
Gilligan said in response to these challenges, the Coolidge Corner Theatre had to find creative ways to retain customers and community engagement during trying times. Gilligan said they have focused on reaching new customers.
“We’ve done a lot of outreach beyond Brookline and trying to reach different audiences and get people in the door who haven’t been before. We really need donations and memberships,” Gilligan said.
Mary Lynn Pergantis said despite the struggles, Party Favors has been able to find ways to expand their business and continue to thrive in new realms.
“We have done far more online business since COVID-19, both through delivery services like Grubhub and Uber Eats and our website. When people were more cautious about coming [into the store], we let them pay for products over the phone and allowed them to pick them up in the store, and we’ve added curbside pickup,” Mary Lynn Pergantis said. “We continue to practice some of these changes even as people are less cautious about the pandemic.”
Gozashti said Brookline Booksmith has also been able to utilize strategies learned during the pandemic to better accommodate the community and feels that COVID-19 created a greater appreciation for the Booksmith and all it has to offer.
“I think that COVID-19 turned people towards literature and provided them with a greater awakening of the power of literature,” Gozashti said. “COVID-19 also made people more aware of the struggles of small businesses within their communities, which I believe made the population of Brookline even more loyal to the Booksmith.”