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Carlisle

5 Questions: CNN features Carlisle business in its coronavirus coverage

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People clicking through a recent CNN story on how the Paycheck Protection Program affected small businesses found a familiar name in the first paragraph.

Georgie Lou’s Retro Candy, the anchor at the corner of High and South Pitt streets in Carlisle, was featured with comments from owner Stephanie Patterson Gilbert.

Gilbert also serves as the president of Destination Carlisle, a volunteer-merchant organization in downtown, and has been spending hours researching opportunities for businesses and sharing that information with other businesses during the pandemic.

Q. How did the connection to CNN happen?

A. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon a link on CNN’s website to “Share your COVID-19 Small Business Story,” and I decided to do it, thinking nothing would probably come of it. I then shared that link with other merchants, telling them I had no idea why they wanted the information, and I hoped one of us might get some exposure from it. Then, I moved on and never thought much about it.

I received an email from CNN Politics reporter Katie Lobosco asking if I would be willing to talk to her about my business’ experience with the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) as Congress debates whether to refund it or not. We had received the PPP back in mid-April and it had been a struggle to find a bank to fund us, and CNN was asking, so of course, I said yes. She then arranged to call me a couple of hours later, and we talked for about an hour about Georgie Lou’s chaotic journey since shutting down our store to the public on March 16.

Because of my connection to other businesses, I was able to speak about many different experiences going on throughout our downtown, from new businesses who didn’t qualify for any federal aid to older businesses who have had trouble retaining employees once they re-opened, and about the incredibly slow and cumbersome process to apply for help. This is not a monolithic experience, and each business owner has a difficult journey ahead of them to try to save businesses, and even though most of that didn’t make it into Katie’s story, it was important for the story to be told.

Q. What has been the reaction to the story — both yours and the community?

A. Honestly, I was pretty blown away when the story came out on CNN’s website and the very first words of the story were “Georgie Lou’s Retro Candy” and a link to our website. Katie emailed me when she published, and I was relieved that the story mostly presented our conversation accurately. I think I was also in shock a little bit, as this was national exposure for our candy store and Carlisle, especially once I looked at CNN’s home page and the story was right at the top center of the page. It didn’t stay there for long, but it was pretty amazing while it lasted. CNN tweeted the story as well.

As far as the public’s reaction, we did get about four online orders from across the country almost immediately, which surprised me. I hadn’t really told anyone the story was happening, so when I posted a link to it on our social media, our customers were pretty excited for us. I had several friends and many fans of the store also place orders here locally as a result, giving us more orders than we’ve had since before Easter, for which we are very thankful.

There have been some mixed reactions, too, with several people saying we should just open up and that would solve all our problems. Believe me, all businesses wish it was that simple, but even businesses who are open and doing their best to operate as close to normal as they can are experiencing very slow sales and patronage. Anyone who feels that way isn’t really understanding the many levels of difficulties businesses are facing right now. The losses small businesses have experienced since March are not easily overcome and may never be.

Q. What is the status of Georgie Lou’s right now?

A. For us, the business shut down has been extremely difficult to navigate because we are a family business that usually has a lot of interaction with the public every day. One of my three sons has special needs and among his disabilities is being immunosuppressed, and my husband, his full-time caretaker, has an underlying condition that causes huge COVID complications.

We are continually monitoring the virus numbers, and we still do not feel like we can safely open our doors to the public and keep our family’s health safe yet. When the shut down first happened, we didn’t go into our store for two weeks just to make sure any virus that might have been in there was dead, and then I scrambled, working 18 hours a day, to get our entire store inventory of candy, soda, and pop culture gear online. We have been operating via online orders only, doing local contactless deliveries and shipping since April 1, and we just added local pick up for those who are local but outside our five-mile delivery zone. Anyone wanting a little candy pick-me-up or an awesome retro graphic tee can order at georgielousretrocandy.com, and we’d much appreciate it.

I have continued to try to raise the profile of downtown through Destination Carlisle. I’ve tried to continue our social media sharing, facilitate conversations between local businesses, and advocate to local government and anyone who will listen for our businesses.

We also ran the Downtown Summer Bucket List in July, and I just finished our Virtual Guide to Downtown Carlisle, which is basically an easy-to-use tool to find information about downtown that can be found at destinationcarlisle.com.

If you’re coming downtown, you can find where to eat, shop, take a unique photo, learn local history and more using this handy site that can be placed on your phone’s home screen or viewed on a tablet or PC. I hope to continue to expand the virtual guide moving forward and with the public’s help, as they can share photos, videos, and messages with us from right inside the guide.

Q. What can the government do to continue to help small businesses?

The first thing the government can do at all levels is stop politicizing every aspect of COVID-19 because all politicians do when this happens is destabilize any effort put in place to overcome the virus. They need to actually come together and put out clear guidelines and directions for everyone and then enforce those guidelines. The only thing that will get businesses heading back to normal is for the infection rates to plummet and stay that way, and in the current environment, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen any time soon.

From a more direct business perspective, I would say, again, the government needs to stop bickering and do something, and they need to cut out as much bureaucratic red tape and restrictions as they can within the programs. They need to move faster at every level of government to get money into the hands of businesses as quickly as possible. Most small businesses do not have a buffer, as they operate with their own version of paycheck-to-paycheck, and having to wait months for help is going to cause massive business closures.

We also desperately need actual small business voices in the conversations happening at every government level during this pandemic, and we aren’t seeing that happen. Asking a chamber of commerce or tourism marketer isn’t the same thing, as most of them have never run businesses either. Small business people are smart and resilient and experts at what they do, so let them weigh in or decide where to spend the money, as they understand best what needs to be done to help their businesses survive.

Q. What can consumers do to support small business?

The first thing businesses need right now is business. As strong, independent-spirited people, small business owners don’t want to do anything right now more than work, but there just simply isn’t enough work to allow their businesses to survive let alone flourish. While some further government support needs to happen to make up for the massive shut-down losses and save businesses from immediate failures, it’s our communities who will save small businesses if they are to be saved. Our individual actions in deciding where to spend our money is what will make the difference in the end. Every dime you spend right now gets those businesses one dime closer to making rent or paying an electric bill.

If you can’t support businesses directly, interact with them on social media, share posts, and do what you can to spread the word to others about our local businesses. Every small business is in survival mode right now, and any patronage you can give them gets them one more step to the other side of this.

Email Tammie at tgitt@cumberlink.com. Follow her on Twitter @TammieGitt.

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