Hook and Between the Covers, whose signs are visible in a photo from this winter, are among Telluride’s small businesses thinking creatively and focusing on online shopping to help weather the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy photo) 

The slogan “Shop Local” has never been more important.

Off-season is already a challenging time of year for many local retailers, but layer the year’s historically slowest time for business with a pandemic, and the struggle becomes even more severe. Telluride’s business owners are resourceful, even as they face the obstacles thrown at them by COVID-19.

Since San Miguel County issued its public health order that includes having residents shelter-at-home and the closure of non-essential businesses, traditional brick and mortar business models have been usurped, with greater emphasis being placed on online shopping. 

Gargoyle’s Gift Shop, owned by Ted Wilson, like many businesses, closes for the two weeks the school district’s families would be on spring break, but operates at reduced hours throughout April and into May.

“Spring offseason was always for rearranging the store, bringing in new inventory and prepping for a busy summer,” Wilson said, “but that’s on hold until we know if we’ll have a summer season in Telluride.”    

The shop offers online shopping and Wilson leaves orders outside the store, or will deliver in town. Popular items have been games and puzzles “to fight quarantine boredom,” Wilson said. While he’s grateful for locals helping “pay a utility bill or two,” and has received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan from the Small Business Association, these are hard times to be a business owner.

“I keep uttering the phrase ‘dead in the water,’” Wilson said. “That’s the best way to describe the status of nonessential businesses. Hopefully we can adapt to an uncertain future and a tourist town with potentially no tourists. But for now, I’m stuck at home like most people with little to no options for changing how we do business until we’re able to truly operate them again.”

For Lynn Moore, owner of the gift shop Hook, the unique circumstances of a world grappling with coronavirus have forced her to strengthen her online business.

“As soon as everything got shut down, I started putting more things online,” she said. “People are spending money right now. It’s retail therapy.”

Things like puzzles and her high-end hand lotions are moving well, and she has stimulated business by offering a discount. Customers can pick up orders at the shop.

Hook, like Gargoyle’s, stays open for most of the off-season, prepping for summer, but the loss of sales at the tail end of the ski season was a blow.

“Losing that last three weeks at the end of the season killed us all,” she said.

Moore said she looked into getting a PPP loan, but with just two, full-time employees — herself and one other — it makes more sense for them to file for unemployment. 

Moore’s biggest monthly burden is rent, and faced with the uncertainty of the summer season she said she’s “figuring out if I want to go into more debt just to survive.”

“Small business is the backbone of this country and this town,” she said. “The bailout is not helping.”

And even with a 50 percent abatement on rent extended by her landlord, and with the Town of Telluride recently authorizing a deferral on March and April sales tax, she’s not sure it’s enough. 

“We’ve got to pay it eventually, and if summer doesn’t happen …” she said. “We’re a busy store, but small. With a high rent and off-season, it’s hard to make a profit.”

Hook’s neighbor to the east is Between the Covers Bookstore, co-owned by Daiva Chesonis and Bobbi Smith. Chesonis only half-jokingly said the pair decided to deem the shop essential and created the SOS (Shop Our Shelves) and Back Porch Pickup way of doing business.

“We decided to limit sales to what we have versus bringing in new inventory, which in turn becomes an invoice with a deadline,” Chesonis said. “It also limits the amount of outside world germs entering the shop, which, by the way, got disinfected with the help of Bobbi's in-laws that got trapped here when the ski area shut down.”

Smith is at the shop from 4-5 p.m. on weekdays when she pulls and wraps orders and answers the phone.

For both Smith and Chesonis, books are indeed, essential.

“Do people need air?” Chesonis said. “At first, it seemed like locals were digging into their stacks of the unread so it was a slow start. Things have certainly picked up, making me think that most of those books got the reading they were waiting for.”

Between the Covers usually has a long, off-season hiatus, and this year it was scheduled from April 5 through April 30.

“We've basically taken that concept out of our internal calendars for now, hoping to keep (customers) stocked and well read as we all hang out during a time many of us don't,” said Chesonis. “It'll be easy to plug back in an off season next year when our new reality will hopefully include tons of skiing and then the usual downtime for rejuvenation before a robust and — let's be honest — emotional summer festival season in 2021.”

In addition to loans made available to small businesses, Smith and Chesonis credited Alpine Bank and ASAP accounting and payroll services as being helpful. “If you didn’t think local baking matters, you might now,” Chesonis said. And, within the independent booksellers world, sizable donations from author James Patterson and actor Reese Witherspoon to will allow booksellers to apply for grants.

Chesonis misses the human element of her business — book-loving customers — but has effusive praise for how San Miguel County officials are handing the crisis.

“We hold such gratitude to our county and its myriad services that have stayed on top of things, while taking risks with brand new and constantly evolving innovation,” she said. “This was not a time to sit back and see what happens to your town, that's left-behind thinking. Some say there's been overkill, we say let's make it no kill: Not one human, not one business.”

In support of local business navigating the waters post-pandemic, the Telluride Tourism Board and Colorado Flights have announced the formation of the Economic Recovery Council. According to a recent news release, “efforts include coordinating business protocols, reopening messaging and communication, tourism policies and business support, while developing tactics for both the short and long-term. Council representatives include members from area governments, tourism, philanthropic, lodging, retail, restaurants, finance, real estate, outfitters/activities and others. The group meets bi-weekly.”

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