Small Business Economy: Support Through Hardship

By: Ruby Sigmund, Co-Editor-in-Chief

“For as long as I can remember, small businesses have characterized downtown [Maplewood-South Orange (MAPSO)]. Going to locally-owned stores was a huge part of my life as a kid in the village. We were friends with business owners and their families, and it was important to all of us to support them and build a community that celebrated what they were doing,” said Maggie Kraus, a Maplewood resident that graduated Columbia High School (CHS) in 2008. 

The sentiment Kraus expressed of a mutually beneficial relationship has amplified in the 12 years since she graduated, as new shops have expanded the “unique”-ness of our community. “You can’t find these businesses anywhere else,” echoed Greer Scott, ‘21. Though the pandemic has changed many aspects of students, parents, and other MAPSO residents’ lives, one constant has been the importance of small business. 

Since the pandemic started, 37.6% of small businesses in Essex County have had to close their doors, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses. 

Local businesses in MAPSO such as Sprout, Cedar Ridge and most recently the Maplewood Theater as well as Tara’s permanently closed as a result of COVID-19’s impact on their revenue. The pandemic has also forced national chains in the community such as Kings in Maplewood and Bow Tie Cinemas in South Orange to close up shop. 

However, because these stores are run for MAPSO residents by MAPSO residents, many have managed to survive and even thrive despite our current virtual lifestyles, especially ones which use CHS’s significance to a large population of MAPSO to their advantage. “In our community, [small businesses] give people somewhere to shop and purchase goods, [as well as] favorite spots to go for snacks with friends,” said Jamie Fardin, ‘23. 

Two businesses in particular parallel CHS’s culture of creativity in both the arts and sports: The Able Baker and Kicks N’ Sticks. Despite virtual learning, which has been implemented since March, CHS students, parents and teachers that live nearby have purposefully continued their support for local businesses as both buyers and sellers struggle through economic hardships. 

The Able Baker

Julie Pauly, the owner of The Able Baker, has observed similarities between the support the bakery received when it first opened and the support it is receiving during the pandemic: “I lost my job after the market crash of 2008. I started baking as a side gig, to do something while the “real job” came along. In April of 2009, I sent an email to 35 people. They shared, cheered, promoted and ordered. Luckily for me, I was in this amazing community, surrounded by a wildly talented Team Butter.” 

Art by: C. Baker

“Team Butter” is more than just an umbrella term Pauly uses to talk about her employees. It is another example of the crucial aspects of small businesses that allow them to survive. “Despite employing people ranging from high school students to parents, The Able Baker has managed to foster a community of people that effortlessly mesh well together,” said Grace Charles, a former employee at The Able Baker and CHS class of ‘15 graduate. 

Charles explained that this idea of community is a major part of the bakery’s brand, a unique feature that causes MAPSO residents to become repeat customers. 

“It is integral to CHS students, parents and teachers because all roads lead to Able Baker.”

– Kitty Nyguyen

The connection that the bakery has to MAPSO also extends to CHS. Emma Buettner, ‘23, said, “A lot of the CHS kids and parents like having the bakery in town and are customers. It’s a big part of the small business economy in MAPSO, and [The] Able Baker has been a part of my life ever since I can remember.” Kitty Nyguyen, a CHS parent, spoke about the intersection of CHS and the culture of The Able Baker: “It is integral to CHS students, parents and teachers because all roads lead to Able Baker. It is a place that all three will run into each other – a neutral place where they can say ‘hi’ and share their common interest in a well-made treat.” 

CHS parents spoke to their connection personally with Julie and her partner, Thomas Pauly, on how their restaurant has allowed them to grow their social network. Shuana Brice, parent to three CHS graduates, said, “Julie and Tom are dear friends. I met them as I met most of my MAPSO friends – through my kids and their many playdates!” Another parent, Shawn McCarthy, said, “I consider Able my home away from home. I’ve known Julie for years so watching her and Thomas take her passion to a thriving business has been inspiring. I love seeing my fellow regulars and I even met my running partner there.” 

Usually, consumer-employee interactions decrease an employee’s sense of humanity and social power, as noted in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, “Hundreds of little things get done [by employees], reliably and routinely every day, without anyone’s seeming to do them.” However, because of the commonalities shared between all members of The Able Baker’s community, empathy and connection occur. Kraus said, “I worked with a lot of CHS alumni and students during my time at the bakery. It was great that we all had this particular experience in common, and it made me feel connected to those around me.” Kraus also talked about her relationship with the support she received directly from Team Butter: “Julie and Thomas sold my albums alongside bags of coffee and made me little Able Baker buttons that had the band name on them. My relationships with fellow staff members went so far beyond anything else I’ve experienced in a workplace, and I’m still very grateful for that.”

Photo By: A. Loubier

The support system that the Paulys have created has been crucial to the survival of the bakery over the course of the pandemic. “The days leading up to St. Patrick’s day, March 17, were stressful and confusing. We closed the following day. With just our family, we offered a limited Friday delivery service through April and May,” said Mrs. Pauly when describing the beginning of quarantine in MAPSO’s effect on the business. This transition showcased how the staff of The Able Baker “genuinely care about the town they are in, [which] is not something they are required to do, but that they choose to,” said Brice.

CHS customers often go to The Able Baker because of its proximity and accessibility. This means that a large portion of the bakery’s customers frequently buy goods. Because of COVID-19, these spur-of-the-moment purchases are more sporadic: “I haven’t gone to The Able Baker as much since the pandemic started, but before I would go every now and then with friends,” said Scott. Stephanie Rivera, a history teacher at CHS, agreed, “My husband and I used to go every morning Monday to Friday before work to have coffee, but obviously the pandemic has changed that.” 

These observations were confirmed by Mrs. Pauly in her statement that “sales are down 30%, and we see far fewer students than we used to.” The decrease in foot traffic, however, has coincided with an increase in first-time customers, as Mrs. Pauly noted that “people are finding us online like never before.”

High praise is sung for the bakery because it “reflects the values of our community,” said Rivera. Over the past 11 years, The Able Baker has increased its level of neighborhood involvement through vocal support of Black Lives Matter, local anti-racism organizations and voting rights, as well as donations to Rent Party, which helps fight food insecurity in MAPSO through local music concerts. Humans are innately searching for socialization and familiarity, and both of these aspects can be found at The Able Baker. 

Kicks N’ Sticks

Another business crucial to the culture of CHS is Kicks N’ Sticks. Kicks N’ Sticks is located adjacent to MAPSO in Vauxhall, NJ, but it provides items such as equipment and uniforms which are essential to the sports teams of CHS. Larry Martelli, the co-owner of Kicks N’ Sticks, said, “We are a retail, team, spirit wear and screen printing as well as embroidery business.”

As a coach [I] encourage athletes to invest in team gear because it is something that unifies us as well as brings out positive team spirit,”

– Ms. Clesmere

Appearance indicates status, which affects the behaviors and interactions of others in the environment. In the case of sports, looking the part of a strong athlete factors into the player’s confidence. “As a coach [I] encourage athletes to invest in team gear because it is something that unifies us as well as brings out positive team spirit,” said Lindsey Clesmere, a physical education teacher and coach of girls soccer and softball at CHS. 

Photo By: A. Loubier

Quality of equipment and sports apparel are also indicators of wealth. Because many sports at CHS require expensive products to be purchased individually in order to play, growing as an athlete is often dependent on having additional income to spend on extracurricular activity. This means that there is a correlation between wealth, typically concentrated in white families, and the longevity of an athletic career, which is seen in higher levels of higher-costing sports such as lacrosse, in which 86% of college players are white. However, several members of the CHS community commented on Kicks N’ Sticks reasonably-priced products: “Kicks N’ Sticks cares about their customers and [they] really help by giving student discounts,” said Leo Brash, ‘24, a player on the freshman boys soccer team. Clesmere agreed, “They provide products that are high quality and affordable. They also understand the demographic area and can cater to the needs of the community.” 

Others noted that the close business relationship to CHS makes Kicks N’ Sticks a practical option when shopping for custom clothing. “Student Council uses Kicks N’ Sticks for our apparel sales. It’s an easy place to [contact] and [it] gives us fair prices. Since it is a local business it’s very convenient to pick up items and contact Jon Seccamanie, the owner, with any issues,” said Lily Ramos, ‘21, the Vice-President of the 2021 Student Council. Ramos also spoke to her own history with the business, having said that she has been “going to the store since [she] was little” and as a result feels that she “should stay loyal to the company.”

Like a majority of the small businesses in the MAPSO area, the pandemic has hit Kicks N’ Sticks hard, though not to the same degree as businesses selling food items such as The Able Baker. Ryan Muirhead, a finance teacher and coach of boys baseball and soccer, said, “I imagine most teams ran their spring clothing apparel [sale] even though the spring season didn’t end up happening. Compare that to a restaurant, where if you’re closed for a day or customers decide not to come in because of health risks, [they] can’t make that sale back the following day.” Muirhead also noted that “a lot of sports programs deal with vendors based on relationships,” and that “small businesses drive an entrepreneurial spirit within the community.” Martelli said, “The retail segment of our business is the most difficult to navigate [during the pandemic] due [to] the interaction needed to service the customer, ie., sizing and fitting footwear and equipment. As difficult as it is to be shut down, the safety of our employees and customers is the most important.”

Small businesses make up MAPSO, and without [them], MAPSO wouldn’t be MAPSO,”

– Emma Buettner, ’23

CHS customers underscored the importance of service and being personable as a form of small business currency and reasoned that this is why Kicks N’ Sticks is connected to MAPSO. A player on the girls junior varsity soccer team, Frances Borello, ‘23, said, “The Kicks N’ Sticks community is very friendly. Every time I go, people always greet [me] with a smile and make [me] feel welcome. Gavin Kleppe, ‘21, a member of the boys varsity lacrosse and soccer teams, commented on his personal relationship to Kicks N Sticks: “Growing up, my mom always used to take me to Kicks N’ Sticks to buy new lacrosse equipment. I remember how kind and helpful the staff was and how they connected with everyone who walked in. They truly engage themselves with the customers.” 

Art By: M. Shapiro

Small businesses reflect their community and their customers. “Small businesses make up MAPSO, and without [them], MAPSO wouldn’t be MAPSO,” said Buettner. CHS consumers choose to buy from shops such as The Able Baker and Kicks N’ Sticks because they represent how MAPSO wants to sell itself, an organized body of individuals who care for and support each other. Regardless of whether this is a reality or an ideal model, the local small business economy has noteworthy ties to MAPSO and CHS.

Design: Jack Griffith