By Kimberly Cauvel
— The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed people to do things they wouldn’t usually do, from wearing cloth face masks at the grocery store to joining work video calls and conferences from the couch, with dogs barking in the background.
At several local companies, trying new things has been essential for keeping dollars coming in and meeting their missions of serving the community.
Iconic and well-established as they are, the Pickford Film Center in downtown Bellingham, Village Books and Paper Dreams with locations in Fairhaven and Lynden, and Bellewood Farms in central Whatcom County are among businesses adapting to the circumstances.
For each of them, efforts initiated in March to fight the spread of the new coronavirus that causes the respiratory illness COVID-19 brought big changes.
Since then, they’ve looked to the internet, started pick-up and delivery services, and created new products to continue reaching customers.
“So much of this is just people trying out what will seem to work and what their abilities will allow them to provide,” Pickford Executive Director Susie Purves said of the business climate as a whole under COVID-19 related closures and operating restrictions.
When Gov. Jay Inslee issued the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order March 23, it meant food-related industries such as the store at Bellewood Farms could remain open to customers, but shops like Village Books had to close their doors.
The nonprofit Pickford Film Center’s theaters were closed to moviegoers indefinitely prior to that, under rules Inslee issued March 16 that limited gatherings to 50 or more and shut down entertainment venues conducive to crowds.
The closures have meant steep profit losses and some layoffs.
Because sales are down about 90% and staff in the building are required to maintain social distancing from one another, Village Books and Paper Dreams has had to temporarily lay off many employees. While the store is closed, remaining staff are filling phone and internet orders for pick-up, delivery and shipping.
“We’ve got about a tenth of the staff working ten times as hard for a tenth of the number of people,” co-owner Paul Hanson said. “It has increased the workload exponentially.”
For Bellewood Farms, whose operations include the Bellewood Acres farm and store and Bellewood Distilling, the cancelation of its Easter event was a big loss.
“Easter is one of our biggest events of the year,” co-owner Eric Abel said. “We have limited hours in January, February, March and April, and we look at Easter as the big kick-off of the year where we invite the community out and it’s a spring celebration.”
Without that gathering, café dining, or distillery tasting, the farm has had to lay off about a third of its staff.
For the Pickford Film Center, the pandemic provided the shove needed for the theater to dip its toes into the digital world.
The nonprofit film center is offering a “virtual screening room” for films, including several it had scheduled for its two downtown theaters, the Pickford and Limelight Cinemas. It was a step the Pickford decided to take in an effort to bring in some ticket-sales revenue after closing its doors.
“It is something that cinemas have been resisting because what we’re about is the community experience: watching a film that is projected in the most advantageous way for the film, with the highest cinematic standards and sound — and all the people in the room reacting in the same way,” Purves said. “So this is very unusual.”
So far, the center is in the dark as to whether it’s working, or when it’ll learn results from the third-party companies that provide the digital connection.
“It’s an experiment,” Purves said. “When we closed our doors, our earned income was zero. So anything above that is great.”
The Pickford is also asking the community to join, renew memberships, or make donations. That effort seems to be working.
During the first week of April, Purves said the theater logged 119 membership renewals in amounts from $35 to $1,200. And Purves knew, on the evening of April 7, that more were on the way.
“We have a tray of envelopes with donations in them that I picked up at the post office today and haven’t opened … it was an amazingly great day,” she said.
The organization is hoping continued contributions — and a pending Small Business Administration loan application — will help its staff avoid layoffs.
“We have 20 people on the payroll and we managed to keep them on the payroll,” Purves said. “There are a number of people who work for us who are part time and they can’t necessarily get unemployment, so we definitely want to preserve their jobs.”
Purves said it’s clear that frequent Pickford visitors who are donating share that goal — and she is grateful.
“I think everyone who has written a check has the fate of our projectionists in mind,” she said. “We have a strong sense of loyalty with our audience; they appreciate what we do and the way we do it, and a lot of them feel they have personal relationships with the staff behind the counter.”
Curate and deliver
At Village Books and Paper Dreams, no customers are browsing the shelves for their next read or whimsical gift. Co-owners Paul Hanson, Kelly Evert and Sarah Hutton have devised several ways to access the Fairhaven store’s wares, though, while the Lynden location is completely closed for now.
They’ve added new features for online shopping and are offering curbside pickup and delivery for areas close to the store during limited hours of operation daily.
“We’ve been talking about doing home delivery for a very long time, wondering ‘What are the logistics for this and can we handle it?’ and right now we just had to, so we just did,” Hanson said. “For the people who are housebound it’s a necessity to be able to do that for them.”
The store also tried offering an Easter basket program for the first time. It posted an online form inquiring about a child’s favorite candy, animals, color, book and activities, as well as the family’s price range and the desired number of items.
“The response from people has been amazing … we’re happy to help make Easter a little more special,” Hanson said the Friday before Easter Sunday.
About 100 personalized Easter collections were curated and placed at the store’s pick-up site just outside.
“The Mark Twain bench is working really great as a curbside landmark for pickup,” Hanson said. “I don’t think Mark Twain ever envisioned that he’d be doing this.”
Village Books has also launched a digital questionnaire for book recommendations.
“Usually people come in and browse. Since they can’t do that, we have a list of questions we ask and then we become their personal shopper,” Hanson said. “We actually learned a new thing that our website is able to do with those web forms, so we will probably continue that for people to have a personalized, online experience.”
The store has also turned to social media to help customers choose from its collection of puzzles and games — hot commodities in a time when families are hunkered down at home.
“We post pictures, like of the puzzles in the store window, with numbers on them, so people can see them and say ‘I want No. 37,’” Hanson said.
It’s not the same as welcoming smiling shoppers into the store each day, but Village Books and Paper Dreams is striving to use phone, digital and delivery services to keep reaching its customers.
“We’re working even harder than ever,” Hanson said. “Building community without the door being opened is difficult, but we’re doing our darndest at it.”
Shifting to take-out — and sanitizer
Priorities have shifted in several departments at Bellewood Farm.
The café, known as a local breakfast and lunch destination, is now making meals to-go that can be heated at home instead of savored on the spot.
“We shifted things into making premade meals, and that’s pretty popular – we were surprised,” Abel said. “We’re known for fruit pies you can take home. We just kind of added to that collection by making pot pies and soups.”
The distillery also adjusted its focus. Instead of the usual spirits made from fermented apples grown on the farm, it is now producing hand sanitizer to meet the local demand.
“They’ve shifted 100% of what they’re doing right now to hand sanitizer,” Abel said. “That project is really rewarding.”
The finished sanitizer, called “Farm Hands,” is 70-80% alcohol and scented with citrus essential oils. It is available in the store in small spray bottles and is offered in bulk to those in the medical and other high-risk industries.
For those uneasy about entering the Bellewood Farm store for hand sanitizer, food, or other locally made items, curbside service is being offered.
“They can call and we will take it out to their car,” Abel said.
Before Easter, Bellewood Farms was keeping revenue stable by balancing the losses from café dining with sales of food to go, and the losses from distillery tasting with sales of hand sanitizer.
The farm is now planning to invite the community to drive in for an apple blossom event May 2-3, to make up for the loss of the usual Easter activities.
“We’re going to do a drive-through spring celebration where people can drive their cars through the blossoms and stop for a photo op if they want to,” Abel said.
While entry for the event will be free, the farm’s hope is that visitors will stock up on food, beverages, gifts or hand sanitizer while passing through.
The flexibility the farm has found in being able to shift its focus for events, food and alcohol products has helped, but it has not been easy.
“It’s taking much more energy and attention to detail to generate the same amount of business,” Abel said. “We don’t really know what any lasting effects are going to be, but we’re really optimistic that things are going to bounce back.”
Kimberly Cauvel is an environmental journalist living in beautiful Bellingham. She was born and raised in Spokane and studied environmental science, environmental studies and journalism at Washington State University and Western Washington University.