Two boutique retail businesses in Portland’s Old Port less than a block apart are experiencing different sides of government pandemic policies and consumer habits.
At 13 Exchange Street, Uncommon Paws is seeing strong sales matching those of last July and August, with its owner crediting the large number of dog adoptions during the pandemic and pent-up buying demand.
The Paper Patch at 21 Exchange St., which has been in business for 51 years, is going out of business. The stationary shop’s owner primarily blames the city of Portland’s street closure to foot traffic, an effort to help restaurants increase their space and operate safely outdoors.
“I can’t survive without the street traffic,” said Rob Sevigny, who bought The Paper Patch 20 years ago.
Sevigny said his customers like to park close by, but now they can’t find an affordable, close way to patronize his store, which he said is the oldest retail shop in the Old Port.
He said business was fine and consistent before the street closure. With so few stationary stores around, customers came from all over, he said. But that changed when the city decided to block off most of Exchange Street, as well as parts of Dana, Milk and Wharf streets, to traffic from June 1 to Nov. 1 to help restaurants whose business was curtailed by the pandemic.
Sevigny said his June sales decreased by 72 percent. He plans to close in mid-September, after Labor Day, and retire. He will turn 62 soon, but said he would rather have chosen to retire than been forced to do so.
Some two dozen businesses on Exchange Street have temporary licenses for sidewalk space, according to the city. A little more than half are for outdoor dining, while 10 are for retail shops, including a bookseller and a flower shop. Neither The Paper Patch nor Uncommon Paws have sidewalk businesses.
The city of Portland surveyed Exchange Street business owners in mid-July to see how the blocked street was working for them. Some 32 businesses responded, according to the city. Most of them, 78 percent, were retailers, 13 percent dining and 9 percent services. Of the total respondents, 34 percent said the street closure has had a “very harmful” effect on their business, while 19 percent said it has been “very helpful.”
But those percentages differ when looking only at the 34 percent of respondents that do have a temporary license to operate on the street. Of those, 57 percent said the street closure has helped them to reopen their businesses safely and successfully, 29 percent said somewhat and 14 percent said very little.
Portland City Manager Jon Jennings wrote to the business owners in August telling them that while there was not a clear consensus about the impact of the street closure, the city would keep the barricades in place.
City Councilor Justin Costa, who chairs the city’s economic development committee, said the street closings don’t work for every business, but they’ve been important to others, particularly restaurants.
He said that while the concerns voiced over the street closure are legitimate, “we have to weigh those against the potential harm of effectively not having restaurants being able to operate in a safe way.”
A few doors down from Sevigny at Uncommon Paws, owner Gudrun Cobb was helping a customer try out a backpack in which to carry her small dog.
“We’ll miss him terribly. He is a fixture on the street,” she said on Thursday of Sevigny. “I shopped at the paper store 40 years ago when I first came to the city.”
Cobb said she was scared when the city closed off Exchange Street in June just as she was reopening her business, but she took a wait-and-see approach.
Business was slow in June, and sales for this year were down dramatically because the store, which she’s had on Exchange Street for five years, was closed for two and a half months while she did curbside and online orders. But things picked up in July and August, with tourists and new dog owners patronizing the shop.
“Lots of people adopted dogs during the pandemic,” said Cobb, who designs and makes the collars, leashes, bandanas, bowties and dog beds that she sells. And people who adopted or already had a dog were ready to shop for their four-legged companions after the store’s shutdown during the pandemic.
But Cobb wonders if her store will also suffer a parking-related slowdown in the fall. She said sales were soft in June because customers were local, and they like to park close by, purchase something and leave. Tourists are more amenable to walking around the city, she said.
“I’m worried that in September, October, November and December that I will find the same thing, that business will slow down because there is no parking,” she said. “July and August have been OK, but later in the year might be different.”