Salt Lake small businesses have been affected in different ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each one has taken separate actions to adapt to the changes and keep business afloat, three of three local businesses spoke specifically about their experiences during the pandemic.
Owned by Oregonian, Cynthia Mills, this knitting shop provides a gathering place for knitters of all levels to come together since 2008. The store features unique yarns and knitting needles, weekly classes and “knitting around the table,” and often cookies and plenty of coffee from local Cafe Ibis.
“When people think of knitting, they think of a bunch of people sitting around in a rocking chair,” Mills said. “It’s not.”
Mills also went on to explain that while knitting is often thought of as a female activity, they have more men “knitters” than people would think.
Mills’ interest in her customers and the community was obvious as she referenced many favorite customers and their projects, including a young boy and his Christmas project and some members of her staff.
“We’ve got such talented, talented knitters,” Mills said. “A new person on staff that just graduated from law school just finished her 19th or 20th sweaters of this year. I mean, it’s like whoa. We have a local designer, Aaron, and it’s fun to see their patterns come alive.”
Located in a charming old home at 1365 South and 1100 East, this shop has space to gather whether inside, on the porch, or in the yard. Mills said she’d even had to hire gardeners as part of their staff in the last few years because she wanted Blazing Needles to have a nice yard to gather in.
“It’s been great, and it’s really worked exactly as I’ve planned, which I guess doesn’t always happen,” Mills said. From the people who helped me from the very beginning to get my website up to now my designers and gardeners, it takes a whole team.”
They are still operating with COVID-19 precautions in place.
“We have certainly curbside pickup,” Mills said. “We do virtual shopping we have a lot of virtual shopping appointments today and you know we take them they looking for we take the store and if they need help on their knitting, they can do a virtual we call it SOS and they just go on to the website schedule it on the calendar and we help them shop or helping with their knitting.”
While COVID-19 has provided a decent challenge for all local businesses, Mills says she has had to alter her business; fewer flights from Europe for knitting needles, fewer supplies from Peru, and less time with the customers.
“I get emails all the time on how much they [the customers] miss us because they get together all the time to knit around the table and we still teach classes, but everyone spaces out and wears masks,” Mills said. “We want to stay in business and we need revenue to do that. It’s sad that other stores have closed throughout the community and throughout the country.”
What Mills misses most was something she gave the community for free: beginner knitting classes.
“If you’re not a knitter yet, we have always offered from the beginning free beginning knitting,” Mills said. “There will be 35 new people on any given Saturday and they’re all making hats. I really miss that and I know that people miss that.”
With 13 years of experience, Mills says they have managed to stay afloat. Blazing Needles has offered 15% off any purchase to anyone who references this article.
Mills said they often highlight their customers’ projects on Instagram and Facebook.
“Well, it’s been really tough being here [in Oregon] because I do so adore my customers and I know who they are, their projects, their kids, what’s happening. It’s really the people that I’m missing the very most,” Mills said. “The goal is to stay well and be able to come back and be able to hug some customers. Even in the very infancy of thinking of Blazing Needles, it was community. Period.”
The Tutoring Toy
Bill Sartain began his local toy store, The Tutoring Toy, with his wife Diane Sartain, after years in other careers. Diane Sartain was a pediatric intensive care nurse and Bill Sartain was a businessman.
“One day I was walking through a mall back east where my office was and entered a toy store. It was like someone hit me on the head and said, ‘This was it, stupid’” Bill Sartain said.
With that realization, the couple decided to start a toy store in Salt Lake City.
“We love Salt Lake because of the outdoor activity, skiing, and outdoor recreation. We’d always lived in San Francisco, New York, L.A., so we wanted to cool our jets and get into something a little more slow-paced,” Bill Sartain said. “I often joked I was the only liberal democrat in the entire state. Diane had some family here, so we said, ‘hey why not?’”
Their store is designed to meet a child’s developmental need in a toy.
Matched to their name, “The Tutoring Toy” provides families with toys that are organized by the different skills and benefits they offer in order to truly help children learn and grow through their play. They’ve designed their toy store around the needs of children at different ages and stages of development.
“We get to know our customers and almost do a mini-assessment of what the child is doing, what the parent’s expectations are- and we’re not bashful about that,” Bill Sartain said. “There’s more emotion attached to shopping for toys than batteries and tires, and the reason is you don’t want to let that child down. You want to get them something they like that has some developmental benefit.”
However, this store, too, was hit hard by the pandemic. Bill Sartain explained that as grandparents, they had to close in the spring and are still recovering from that time.
“We took a pounding. We had to be closed for three and a half months,” Bill Sartain said. “We’re elderly and had to take some precautions. We closed in March and reopened mid-June. We’ve seen a steady increase since we opened our doors and we are having a decent holiday season. We don’t know where that will end up by the 25th of December, but we’re optimistic we’re back on track.”
Bill Sartain also commented on the importance of their customers and the sense of community they feel.
“People have said, ‘I’ll come in. You don’t even have to pay me, I’ll come in and help you.’ It’s a relational business, it’s not transactional. Our customers are mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers,” Bill Sartain said. “We have a wonderful customer base, a lot of them are almost like friendships. My wife, in particular, is amazing. She can remember the kids’ names while I have trouble finding my way home at night.”
While the store often offers free hugs for any customer that comes in, Bill Sartain said that care is still offered to any customer, although this year, that might be elbow bumps.
The King’s English Bookshop
Betsy Burton used to own two offices on 15 and 15. She was a single mother with an English degree but didn’t want to teach. After writing what she called, “in retrospect a very poor novel,” it was then decided that she would turn those offices into a bookshop.
Salt Lake and Sugar House natives know and hold dear, The King’s English Bookshop. This shop, still located at the heart of Sugar House, is a large building filled with narrow walkways and small nooks to read in.
“It took us a while to learn the ropes, but we fell in love with it,” Burton said. “Now I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
She explained that their bookstore, while maybe struggling to compete with bigger chains, provided customers with the service of well-read booksellers and people who knew authors and genres and could easily find you a recommendation for a book you would enjoy.
“We are what we call, a carefully curated store,” Burton said. “In Barnes and Noble or Amazon you can get anything you want, but there’s no good way of sorting through so you have to depend on reviews. We are lifetime booksellers and we know our store. We know our customers and we have wonderful fiction, great non-fiction, great mysteries. We have, I think, the best of books.”
Burton went on to reference a number of novels they carry, explaining a brief synopsis and listing authors and titles- all from memory. She knew what had been most popular, what was the most thrilling mystery, or what was the best book written by a local author.
“Our bestselling book is the new Obama book, but our favorite fiction is Deacon King Kong by McBride, so that’s one that I highly recommend,” Burton said. “If you are a lover of historical fiction, The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, the third in a trilogy, would be my recommendation.”
Burton said they have also been affected by the pandemic.
“We’ve probably been affected more than many businesses because we’ve got eight small rooms so no one can maintain social distancing. We closed for all but curbside shipping,” Burton said. “People send us orders and call in orders and mail-in orders. We bought one of those big crates and we call it, ‘The King’s English Book Shack,’ and we put them out there in alphabetical order.
Burton explained that she had a son with a disability and that he and his caregiver deliver orders for free every day within Salt Lake City limits, and then outside of that they ship the books to customers. Since they can’t help customers in person, they also use a new form of book matching found on their website called the Inkslinger.
“If you put in our website, the Inkslinger has lists of books in categories,” Burton said. “All kinds of categories you can search. Anybody who likes to read anything you can find books. So if they’re ordering them today, they could come pick them up.”
Despite the challenges, the King’s English Bookstore seems to be managing alright. Burton explained they have two other shops within the Salt Lake City Airport, where their books can now be featured.
“Our specialty is matching books to people. I mean, that’s what we do,” Burton said.