Party+Favors%2C+a+town-wide+favorite+for+cakes%2C+cupcakes+and+party+decorations%2C+has+been+forced+to+adapt+to+new+circumstances+following+the+COVID-19+pandemic%2C+as+have+other+local+businesses%2C+such+as+the+Brookline+Booksmith+and+the+Coolidge+Corner+Theater.

ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ/SAGAMORE STAFF

Party Favors, a town-wide favorite for cakes, cupcakes and party decorations, has been forced to adapt to new circumstances following the COVID-19 pandemic, as have other local businesses, such as the Brookline Booksmith and the Coolidge Corner Theater.

Local businesses rely on community during challenging times

January 5, 2023

Nestled in the bustling heart of Coolidge Corner, Party Favors may not be Brookline’s oldest time capsule, but for the bakery’s head chef John Pergantis, it is certainly the town’s most delicious. Nonetheless, it hasn’t always been easy surviving in a climate in which it seems small businesses just can’t seem to catch a break.

Following nearly two years of pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions which hampered their operations in many ways, small businesses across the country are feeling the strain of inflation-induced price increases and supply-chain issues that have kept millions of products off shelves. They struggle to fill positions when the demand for workers has reached a high unmatched in recent history. And, at a time when small business owners have begun to recuperate what they lost over the past two years, they are worried that inflation could spell disaster for them in two key ways: higher costs and skittish customers.

Like many other communities, Brookline has not been immune to the economic downturn across the country. In 2021, according to the annual Storefront Survey conducted by the Brookline Department of Planning and Community Development, the vacancy rate of Brookline businesses hit a historic high of a little over twelve percent, while the retail rate, or the percent of businesses that are retail stores, dipped to 17.5 percent a slight decrease from pre-pandemic levels. Further, the rate of new or continued vacancies in Brookline businesses outpaced the rate of opened businesses.

Massachusetts Small Business Administration Director Robert Nelson said an uncertain future makes the economic hardships plaguing small businesses even more concerning.

“I’m sure many businesses are trying to save costs and reduce expenses right now, trying to figure out if there is a recession,” Nelson said. “Running a small business is hard, and these [newfound economic] fears make it difficult for owners to be successful.”

Despite the angst that uncertain waters ahead cause small businesses, many small business owners in Brookline remain committed to their businesses and the joy that it brings them.

For Party Favors co-owner Mary Lynn Pergantis, never losing sight of what her business offers her customers is one of the primary reasons she still co-owns Party Favors after over thirty years.

“Honestly, [taking part in those moments] is one of our favorite things about the business. We love when people come into the bakery and tell us the stories behind their cakes. That’s something that no advertisement can do for you,” Pergantis said.

The climate

Despite small businesses in Brookline facing economic challenges, many small business owners praise Brookline’s small-business-friendly nature.

According to Mary Lynn Pergantis, customer support and the attitudes of town residents in the community are crucial to Party Favors’s success.

“What we like about Brookline is that people are very loyal here. It has a small-town feel, so you get to know your customers and see many of the same people several times,” Pergantis said. “Generally, if Brookline residents find a business they enjoy, they are very loyal to this business. I think any small business owner in town would tell you that.”

Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Deputy Director Beth Gilligan said town residents feel the importance of supporting small businesses, especially after the devastation COVID-19 inflicted upon them.

“Certainly, it was sad to see a lot of storefront vacancies in the Coolidge Corner area, and in the aftermath of the pandemic, I think that [it] is always difficult to see,” Gilligan said. “In Brookline, there is a strong strain of social consciousness, social responsibility [and a feeling of] wanting to do the right thing and support local independent businesses.”

Business and local political leaders within the town, such as Brookline’s Town Historian Ken Liss, said the town is a welcoming environment for those seeking to start their own businesses, attributing the success of small businesses in Brookline to many of the town’s economic policies.

“I know the town’s Economic Development Office has done much to foster the development of small businesses in Brookline,” Liss said. “The Chamber of Commerce has taken many steps to grow the small businesses in Brookline, and recently they’ve pushed to add more minority-owned businesses throughout Brookline.”

Heather Hamilton, Chair of the Brookline Select Board, said the strong support Brookline residents show for their small businesses has been instrumental to the success of these businesses during challenging times.

“Brookline clientele enjoy buying local, and we support our small businesses. We enjoy great quality and don’t mind paying for a good product,” Hamilton said.

Executive Director of the Brookline Chamber of Commerce Debbie Miller said the town is a hospitable environment for small business entrepreneurs but expressed caution about the present challenges facing small businesses.

“It is still a difficult time, not as difficult as it was a year ago, but still difficult nonetheless,” Miller said. “Businesses are finding that hiring is more of an issue, prices have increased and having a small business is different than it was three years ago.”

Brookline Booksmith co-owner Lisa Gozashti said these challenges have left the climate of small businesses uncertain and forced owners to work harder to maintain their operations.

“I think that, in general, the climate for owning a small business has been pretty bleak unless you’re at the very top of your game, working in whichever field you may be. That’s certainly tough for businesses,” Gozashti said.

However, Gozashti said the community’s emphasis on curiosity and learning has allowed the Booksmith to thrive.

“Being in this town has also provided us great opportunities, seeing as the population is so intellectually curious. The Brookline community is one of the United States’ most well-read and intellectually curious populations,” Gozashti said. “We exist in an incredibly intellectually diverse, creative and engaged population.”

Her Brookline Booksmith co-owner, Peter Wen, said he credits the passionate community of Brookline Booksmith shoppers for keeping the business flourishing for decades.

“People in Brookline like books, care about education and learning and want to have conversations about current events, all of which are ideal for our business,” Wen said. “Being in existence for sixty years has laid the foundation for our community support, so we have a lengthy history of being a successful independent business upon which we can draw many lessons. We don’t just sell you products, we sell you experiences you’ll cherish for a long time.”

Challenges

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.

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.”

Importance of community

Community plays a vital role in keeping local businesses successful and in turn, local businesses are a central component of Brookline’s community. By supporting local businesses, residents help to create a vibrant and thriving community.

According to Miller, small businesses’ connection with their customers and communities sets them apart.

“In Brookline, relationships matter. In these small businesses, the people who work there and own these businesses understand what their customers want and care about those needs. People respond to that. You can’t order that feeling online, and that’s what makes the difference,” Miller said.

Wen said the Booksmith is far more than a bookstore; it is a space where people can go to pursue a variety of meaningful activities.

“Whether it is providing books, inviting authors to speak about their books, or selling the merchandise we sell, I believe the Booksmith is a community space,” Wen said. “Local businesses provide a gathering place for their community, and I believe Brookline Booksmith has done that.”

According to Party Favors employee and senior at the high school Vi Lee, the store’s longevity gives community members the opportunity to enjoy its offerings over many decades of life.

“Everyone has gone to Party Favors at some point and ordered a cake for a special occasion. It’s definitely quite well-known, and it’s a multi-generational experience for most families,” Lee said. “People will order wedding cakes and then come back years later to order their child’s birthday cake.”

During the 1980s, there were plans for the Coolidge Corner Theatre to be redeveloped and turned into a furniture store. Gilligan said the community’s response highlighted the immense importance of the theatre.

“That was a moment when the community really stepped up at one point. They even formed a human chain around the building to try to keep it open and keep it alive. There was a deep history and deep loyalty within the community,” Gilligan said.

Amidst busy days, town residents can turn to small businesses as safe havens. According to Gozashti, the Booksmith provides many with a warm space to spend their free time.

“We are a community anchor, and many people call the Booksmith their oasis, sanctuary, or happy place,” Gozashti said. “We’re a hub and cultural center and a place for one-stop gift shopping. I believe that [Brookline Booksmith] is the cultural beacon for the community of Brookline.”

According to Hamilton, people’s willingness to support local businesses over larger corporations is fundamental to sustaining the presence and prosperity of small businesses in the town. Hamilton said Brookline residents see the value that local businesses have.

“People in Brookline greatly appreciate quality and will even spend extra for the quality they find at those establishments,” Hamilton said. “People want an experience, and I believe that these local businesses have found a way to make their businesses not only about delivering products to consumers but also delivering an experience.”

Gilligan said her staff appreciates the role the community plays in their businesses and looks to give back to Brookline.

“We love our location. We love Brookline,” Gilligan said. “We love our community and are so grateful. Because we wouldn’t be here without their support, whether it was in 1989 when things were looking really dicey or the pandemic and so we are so grateful that people continue to recognize the role we play and to support us.”

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