Moving Forward, at a Slower PaceCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | A Gowanus gift shop reopens on its own terms. Published: June 15, 2021
COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight |
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As COVID loosens its clenches on the city, there is an overwhelming — and very New York — urge to do the most: hit every happy hour, see every friend who just moved back from Colorado, cram every weeknight with capital-C Culture. I did it the first week back at the office, and it was all fun and games until Sunday evening rolled around and I was a beleaguered husk of myself. Evidently, moderation matters. (I’m counting the days until the next instantly viral think piece bemoaning the opposite of languishing.)
Coming back gently and patiently is possible; it just takes intention. This week, I spoke with Diana Ho, a small business owner who is emerging from the pandemic with a newfound appreciation for taking care — of herself, her business, and her community. I first interviewed Diana, who owns the Gowanus gift shop From Here to Sunday, last July. Check out that conversation here, and keep reading to learn how she’s growing her storefront into a place for art and activism as we move into a new New York phase.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When we spoke last summer, you were very uncertain about when to reopen and had just been denied a PPP loan. What happened next?
So much has happened, it feels like such a blur ... I think we reopened the storefront at the end of August.
How did that feel?
Like a relief. I didn't know what to expect, but it did feel good to be open again. Even though we only opened three days a week, just because traffic has been slower [editorial note: the shop is still open only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and by appointment]. But it was nice to get back to having a storefront again after sitting on it for so long.
How was business in the fall and winter?
Fall was okay, and then the holiday season was kind of intense. Not just from people shopping at the storefront, but we got [featured] on some gift guides. The major one was The Strategist, which hit a really large audience. The cookie subscription was listed … The last time we talked, I was really excited about my subscribers having tripled to 30; over the holidays, it jumped to 80. So it was a really intense shift, which I'm super grateful for, but it definitely tested my limits.
What are your subscriptions like now?
It's fewer people because a lot of them have expired, which is almost welcome because I need a little bit of a break, but I would be happy for it to ebb and flow throughout the year.
Did you reapply for the PPP in the second round or get any other emergency relief?
I'm a little bit embarrassed to say that I didn't even try for a second time because ... I don't know. Part of it is that I was discouraged from the first attempt, and then also — and my friends are always befuddled by this next reason — I felt like I was already in a privileged position to survive, and there were other businesses that could use the funding more than me. Another part of it is I just never got around to it: I've been working nonstop since we shut down. So it's been weird.
Fair enough. I don’t think people are talking enough about how lots of small business owners simply didn’t have the time to navigate the labyrinthine applications.
Yeah, and I just didn't have enough faith that it would be worth my time, although I have heard from other businesses that they didn't have any issues the second time around. So part of me is kicking myself, but I think I'll be okay.
Can you elaborate on the feelings of privilege that kept you from applying?
Just seeing a lot of storefronts shut down permanently, I feel like, At least I've been able to pay the rent. Yes, it’s been difficult, but I've been able to continue my business without too much disruption. Maybe it's just me having a hard time asking for help.
Well, kudos to you for turning out your e-commerce business so quickly.
Thanks. I mean, obviously there's always more that can be done, but I'm happy that at least there was that component. Having flexibility was such an important aspect to running a business this last year.
What is your rent situation right now?
We had a reduced rate basically until we reopened. We went back to normal after that. It's a strain, but it's doable. I don't think [the landlord] will require back pay eventually, so at least that’s forgiven.
You recently hired a couple assistants; what precipitated that?
This last year has taken such a toll on my mental health, I just needed an opportunity to recover. It's been helpful to have some people to lean on. I also have a couple interns through this high school program at the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School ... They have a class where the seniors find internships at local businesses in their last semester. That's been a learning experience for me, too, because I haven't really worked with teenagers, and even just working with people is very different for me because I'm so used to doing everything myself. I'm learning a lot about delegating responsibilities and trying to teach certain skills. I'm excited for the students, too, because I think it’s going to be really helpful for them.
You just had an art show at the shop — congrats! I know you were planning it when COVID hit ...
Thank you. Obviously we had to cancel it last year, and then I kept occasionally checking in with the artists, asking how they felt about doing the show and when we should do it. For a long time, I wasn't ready and I wasn't sure how an in-person event would work. It took a while to get to a place where we felt comfortable having it. In some ways it was good that we had the one-year delay, because the work itself felt a lot more poignant. The show is called Homebody, which was really relevant since we're all homebound.
Was it called that even when you were planning it pre-COVID?
Yeah. It's from a zine that one of the artists made a couple of years back. It felt more emotional to see the work this year, because there are a lot of themes of isolation and repetition, and it's a very pared down color scheme … All those elements made sense in the context of the pandemic.
Who were the artists?
Serena Chang and Rose Wong. Serena works as an art fabricator in general and then she makes her own artwork. Her works in the show are cast vases with a tile and grout motif. She's really interested in plants as art and vessels being a host for that. And then Rose Wong is an illustrator. In the last couple of years she's been playing around with ceramics, so we landed on this idea of having her hand paint tiles, since she plays a lot with dimension in her illustrations, especially in the zine called Homebody. She'll paint a vase on a vase; there's a lot of meta motifs. The more I look at her work, I'll start to notice different things where it looks like a pattern, but it could also be a landscape.
How was the community response?
I was really encouraged by the opening. Unfortunately it rained heavily that day, but even with that, the turnout was pretty good. I hosted a bake sale fundraiser for Heart of Dinner [a Chinatown-based organization that delivers dinner to East Asian seniors] and South Brooklyn Mutual Aid, and I sold out of cupcakes. From the bake sale and some print sales — I have certain prints where 100% of the proceeds are donated — we’ve raised over $500 so far, and then we're doing an art raffle where all of the proceeds will go to those two organizations.
That’s wonderful of you to use the opening as a launchpad for giving back. Reflecting on this past year, how would you say your relationship with your community has evolved and been challenged or strengthened?
Without the community, we wouldn't be in the position we're in now. It's been interesting to see social justice causes play into retail and watch where we get sales bumps, like over the holidays a lot of people wanted to help out local businesses, and then I had the slightest little bump from AAPI Heritage Month. I don't know what to think of it honestly, but obviously I'm grateful for the additional support. And the art show was really encouraging in that it helped clarify what I want to do with this gallery space. Before the pandemic hit, it was really important for me to have some aspect of the show be very affordable, which we were able to achieve in this show. In fact, all the works are under $300, and most of them are half that price. The second aspect I've come to realize that I want to incorporate is fundraising, where it's tied into mutual aid and giving back to the communities through the arts. I want to do more of that in the future with the space. I'm still trying to build more of a community, but it feels like it's already there, just in a quieter place right now. It's an ongoing endeavor.
I don’t think people should have to overwork in order to feel fulfilled in what they're doing.
How has your relationship to work in general been impacted?
The main thing I've realized this year is how much I need to pare things down in terms of ambition, giving myself more time to rest, and incorporating more self care. I also hope that other people take that with them now that everything's reopening, and things are quote-unquote normalizing. I kind of liked the slower pace. I don’t think people should have to overwork in order to feel fulfilled in what they're doing. It's hard to unlearn some of these things. Even with the exhibition, preparing for it was incredibly intense, but some part of me felt relief because that intensity felt normal to me. So it was really odd because it was both comforting and eye-opening that I feel comfortable in that adrenaline-fueled space, and maybe I need to step back from that a little bit.
I haven't been able to get back to a state where I feel like I can plan. Before the pandemic, I was planning on doing one show a quarter; now I don't even feel like I can do two shows a year. I’ve committed to purely focusing on the shop, not doing any side projects. I don't know what the future holds just yet.
How to help:
Until next time,