Best of Philly: Here’s to Philly’s Small Business Owners Striving to Stay Afloat

They already put themselves on the line. Then came a catastrophe.

philadelphia business owners

Here’s to all the Philadelphia business owners who’ve faced closures amid the pandemic. Photograph by Thana Prasongsin

Admittedly, it’s a little silly to get so emotional over an email. But that’s how it goes during a pandemic — an indeterminate one that’s been punctuated by overdue societal upheaval and a recession. The email’s subject line, “The end of an era,” was announcing the permanent closure of Relentless Fitness, a gym I used to go to on Chestnut Street. “On March 16, we implemented the Governor’s stay-at-home order,” began the heavy missive by owners Marissa Pellegrino and Roger Dickerman. “That, combined with capacity and regulation restrictions even when it is lifted, has driven the decision.” They’d reached a last-straw moment — and I had, too. The ball of anxiety, sadness and confusion that had signed a long-term lease in my gut quickly moved north to my throat. A tear fell on my keyboard.

I had been waiting for this moment. Not waiting to hear that this exact business was closing, but waiting for the news that any of the salons, bookshops, flower shops, dry cleaners, art classes, jewelry stores, coffee shops, yoga studios — you get it — in Philly were shutting down. These places, no matter how vain or frivolous they might seem, are important to me. Collectively, they keep me tethered to my neighborhood, to this city. If they close, what would that mean for their owners? What would that mean for the real-life Sesame Streets that make Philadelphia, well, Philadelphia?

At the bottom of the email was a photo of Marissa and Roger, taken before COVID. They’re in workout clothes, in their gym, arms crossed, standing back to back. Their huge smiles say it all: We are husband and wife, mom and dad, trainers and teachers and business partners, and while it’s not easy running this business, it’s something we’re proud of. I’d seen that picture before, but it suddenly took on a new meaning. It was now like one of those headshots that accompany an obituary.

The email noted that their business was “bookended by two crises. Two impossible times.” They opened when the economy was still recovering from the 2008 recession, the moment when job security at a big company became an antiquated concept. Marissa and Roger, like so many others, saved and scrounged, went beyond their comfort zones, and took a risk on carving out their own place in the world.

I’ve always been in awe — okay, totally jealous — of small-business owners. The tech people get honored with the “entrepreneur” descriptor, but a boutique owner who sells candles in Brewerytown has all the same qualities: vision, drive, fortitude and independence. And they have to clean toilets, process invoices, and take photos for Instagram. They’re operations managers and creative directors. And yet these owners are somehow able to store all that pressure and stress in a back closet when a customer walks through the door. Sharing what they know or what they’re passionate about is the oxygen they breathe. They have to climb mountains to find that unpolluted air. But their customers — us? We feel that. And we dig it, big-time.

But here’s the thing: The traits these owners were born with and the skills they’ve earned are exactly the tools they need to see them through this catastrophe. “I thrive in chaos,” says Joey Clark, owner of Kin Boutique on Pine Street. “I very quickly had to adapt to the idea that I’m going to have to take this week by week and change the model as needed.” She and so many others upped their social games, moved to Zoom appointments, and boarded up holes where front windows once stood. They accepted orders via text message at all hours of the day, dropped off goods to our front doors, applauded the protesters, and tried to plan for an uncertain future.

And I love them for it. Not because of guilt, but because shopping on Amazon is soulless. Because my daughter misses her piano lessons. Because I trust whatever novel Richard at Head House Books recommends. Because these businesspeople are doing anything they can to endure. “I am focusing on what makes us special,” says Clark. “The people that get that, that relate to that, are going to be the people that shop with us for life.”

They’ve held on for months. Can they survive a second wave? An extended recession?

A survey published by Main Street America said that around two-thirds of small-business owners believe they will have to shut down forever if pandemic-related business disruption lasts for five months. That would be a tragedy for them and our city. But the one thing I know in this unknowing time is that these owners will pack up, refocus, and adapt. It’s in their nature.

Published as “The People Who Run Businesses” in our Best of Philly tribute in the August 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.