Five years ago, when Eileen Burns founded the Rogers Park Art Gallery, her business model relied on not only selling items like painted portraits, mugs, earrings and T-shirts, but also renting studio space to local artists.
“Yeah, those were the good old days, and I miss it a lot. Because before the pandemic, business was great,” Burns said last week. “But unfortunately, the pandemic has wiped me out, forcing me to close my doors for good this month.”
When the state issued a shutdown order in March, Burns said, two of her three artists renting space left.
“I depended on renting these spaces to pay my (store) rent, which is now three months behind,” explained Burns, a Rogers Park resident and COVID-19 survivor. “I have not been able to get new renters since then and that has devastated my business. At this point, unless I can come up with $7,000, which would sustain the gallery for a year, I will be out of business.”
As COVID has cut into brick-and-mortar sales, small and independent businesses have been hit especially hard. Rogers Park is no exception. The Far North Side neighborhood—where white residents make up about 44 precent of the community; Black residents, 26 percent; Latino residents, 21 percent; and Asian and other groups, about 9 percent—has 54,872 residents with a median household income of $40,591. (Citywide, the median is $55,198.)
For Burns, the only remaining tenant at her gallery, at 6900 N. Glenwood Ave., is the Rogers Park Chamber of Commerce. She was counting on Small Business Saturday, on the heels of Black Friday, as a last-ditch effort to boost revenues. But that was “disappointing.”
“Normally, the gallery does well on this day—but not this year. The pandemic has everyone afraid to come outside and unfortunately, you cannot order my items online,” she added. “I know the community is going to miss this gallery.”
With no employees, Burns said, she couldn’t qualify for a federal loan from the Paycheck Protection Program or most grants. And she said she has not received any support from Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th, whose ward includes Rogers Park.
“We have an alderman who we have not seen since March,” Burns said. “No one has seen her. I miss Joe Moore as my alderman.”
Hadden disagreed with Burns, saying she hosts regular meetings with Rogers Park business owners.
“When the pandemic first came about, I hosted weekly (virtual) meetings with business owners, but now it has been moved to biweekly (on Thursdays) from 2 to 3 p.m., and I don’t recall Ms. Burns participating in our meetings, which I encourage her to do,” said Hadden. “There are 650 businesses in Rogers Park, and most are small businesses. But without more help from the federal government, there will be more businesses closing.”
Small businesses are getting help from the local Chamber of Commerce and the Rogers Park Business Alliance, which annually offers holiday shoppers rebates of up to $75 for spending money at local shops.
“Rogers Park is a very unique community where residents often support local businesses, especially those with brick-and-mortar stores,” said Sandi Price, executive director of the Rogers Park Business Alliance. “Every year we host Live Love Shop Rogers Park to help local businesses, and you do not need to live in Rogers Park to participate.”
According to Price, in 2019 the nonprofit group awarded $6,375 in rebates to consumers who spent $32,830 at Rogers Park businesses between Thanksgiving and Dec. 31. As for how the program is pacing this year, Price said, “It’s too early to tell right now, but I anticipate and hope that each year we do a little better.”
Another downside in the neighborhood this year: Loyola University Chicago, in the southeast corner of Rogers Park, is holding classes remotely during the pandemic.
“Loyola directed major foot traffic to every business in Rogers Park, but now that, too, is gone because of the pandemic,” said Bill Morton, president of the Rogers Park Chamber of Commerce. “As it stands now, Rogers Park, like so many other neighborhoods, is looking at losing many of its businesses, especially restaurants.”
But not every small business on the Far North Side is in dire straits.
Tee Mart Decorated Apparel, 1445 W. Morse Ave., a custom apparel store, has been holding steady, according to co-founder Renee Matsushima.
“We had our grand opening on March 8 and one week later, we were shut down for the next two months due to the pandemic,” said Matsushima, who owns the family business with her son, Michael Trailer. “In June, we reopened, and business has been good, thanks largely to community support. We have partnered with local schools and nonprofits, and that has been a big help.”
For a small, Black-owned business located in a diverse neighborhood to be doing well during a pandemic shows the potential of all small businesses, said city historian Timuel Black.
“Tee Mart is what we call a ‘ma and pa’ business, and it was started with no money from institutional investors like banks, yet it has been able to stand on its own two feet,” said Black, who turned 101 on Dec. 7. “And we know Rogers Park is not like Austin or some other economically depressed neighborhood where it would be difficult for a small business to survive during a pandemic. The fact that this business is able to make it shows what happens when Black folks stick together.”