We've always known all of that. But it feels more urgent now. Virtually every small business you love, if you were to talk to the owners, you'd find they are fighting off catastrophe. You probably know some that have closed already, but we don't yet understand how many others are at the edge. Businesses that have tapped every resource in hopes of outlasting the worst of the pandemic are reaching the limits of the ingenuity and ferocious spirit that have kept their doors open this long. Congress remains gridlocked on a new stimulus bill, sitting on the life preserver that could keep untold numbers of small businesses open and people employed.
The only thing left is all of us. Yes, we've always known it's good to spend our dollars in our neighborhoods. It's one of the reasons the RFT publishes a Shop Local issue. But this is the year, more than any other in generations, when it is absolutely critical. If you want St. Louis to be more than a collection of chain stores and empty storefronts on the other side of this pandemic, these businesses need your help now. In the pages that follow, you'll find profiles of a few to get you started. They're part of what we love about this town. Think about what you love, and visit those, too. They've got cool stuff, just waiting for you. But they won't be able to wait forever.
— Doyle Murphy
Orlandez Lewis, marketing and promotions director for Vintage Vinyl (6610 Delmar Boulevard, 314-721-4096), has seen the videos and read the horror stories. Retail workers across the nation berated and harassed by frothing vectors of disease for the simple act of attempting to enforce simple mask mandates. Grown men and women throwing absolute toddler tantrums about being asked to do the easiest thing in the world to help keep people safe as a virus rages out of control. In some cases, even outright violence.
He's seen plenty of that incomprehensibly selfish behavior, sure. Just not in his store.
"We haven't really come across any kind of problems or anything like that with customers," Lewis says cheerily. "People have been more than compliant, and more than willing to shop and be safe, just like us."
After a pause, he offers a potential explanation for Vintage Vinyl's good fortune in this regard.
"I think it might be the music," he says. "Because we do say, our motto is: 'Music is the healing force.'"
Ever since the beloved record store that has served as an anchor in the Delmar Loop for some 40 years reopened its doors in June after COVID-19 forced them closed in March, Lewis says things have been going surprisingly well, all things considered. Its pandemic safety measures — which include plexiglass dividers at registers, mandatory masks, enforced social distancing and frequent sanitization — have been well received by the store's loyal customers.
"Surprisingly enough, there's been a really good abundance of people who are still wanting to get out — following safety precautionary measures of course," Lewis says.
Part of that, he reasons, could involve the airing of Papa Ray's Vintage Vinyl Roadshow on the Nine Network back in August. A documentary focused on the independent record store as a cultural entity, with Vintage Vinyl owner Tom "Papa" Ray playing host, the show was a hit, Lewis says, and brought customers flocking to the store.
"The first airing went great. We had tons of people coming in afterwards who were just like, 'I saw you guys on TV,' and you know, such a great response," Lewis says. "And we actually have the DVD for sale of that first episode for customers to buy. But it really went awesome. There's tons of people still coming in and talking about it. There were even some people coming from out of town who said they've seen it as well. So it's been getting a really good reception."
Additionally, the store has rolled out an impressive revamp of its website, vintagevinyl.com, that encourages online ordering. Those items ordered through the web can then either be picked up via the store's curbside option or, if preferred, customers can opt to have them shipped right to their door.
"The website's going pretty great; it's getting a really good response," Lewis says. "Tons of people are using it. It's definitely been a great alternative for people to have as opposed to those who still don't really feel comfortable going to places or coming out to places."
In a year that has been an absolute nightmare across all industries — and in some ways especially retail — Vintage Vinyl seems like a rare story of success. Credit that to its status as a bona fide local institution, to its adaptability in the face of adversity, to its stellar safety precautions (Lewis notes with pride that the store has seen no coronavirus cases among its staff) and yeah, to its recent appearance on television.
But maybe Lewis is also just right about the power of music to heal, especially when illness seems otherwise inescapable.
"When people come in here, there's no kind of hostility or anything like that," Lewis says. "I think everybody's just here for the main purpose to somewhat escape and have some kind of comfort during these trying times."
— Daniel Hill
Play Another Song
Euclid Records, 19 North Gore Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-961-8978
Planet Score Records, 7421 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-282-0777
Music Record Shop, 3116 Locust Street, 314-675-8675
The Record Space, 8716 Gravois Road, Affton; 314-437-2727
Dead Wax Records, 1959 Cherokee Street, 314-833-5565
Wax Rats, 2308.5 Cherokee Street, 303-524-5729
- TYLER SMALL, COURTESY OF COLLECTIVE STL
It is a Monday evening in November, and after eight months of silence, the sound of breathing is once again echoing inside a yoga studio in Old North St. Louis. Before the pandemic lockdowns, the studio's wood-paneled floor could fit as many as 40 students at a time. Today, the class numbers just five.
Alonzo Nelson walks back and forth between his socially distanced students. He walks by a young boy, the son of one of the students, who is playing on an iPad near his mother's mat. The temperature for the class, marketed "Power to the People," is set to a toasty 80 degrees.
Nelson's voice is soft but direct. A schoolteacher by profession, his pace is that of a drill sergeant. After leading the class in some breathing exercises, he gets to the real stuff:
"Inhale, halfway lift," he begins, watching his students bend into their poses. "Exhale ... now walk those hands to the front of the mat, good ... high plank ... lower yourself down ... up dog, lower yourself down, press up and back into down dog ... inhale."
By the end of the hour-long class, the students are sheened in sweat, but they're laughing as they shake and stretch out their limbs. It's a moment of almost-normalcy, a rare thing at a time when a coronavirus surge is threatening to once again shut down yoga communities like Collective STL (1400 N Market Street, 314-200-5796).
But for Nelson, who co-founded the nonprofit in 2017, this is a moment he's yearned for.
"The reality is yoga is seen as something that affluent, skinny white women do," he says during an interview after the class. "You very seldom see a Black person in this kind of space. You very seldom see a person with a bigger body in a yoga studio."
Nelson, a high school math teacher in the Metro East, met his future fellow co-founders of Collective STL in a yoga teacher training course. He remembers bonding with the three Black yoga teachers over their shared love of the practice, but they also shared the feeling of alienation in those same spaces: It was the feeling of walking into a studio and realizing they were the only Black person there. Through Collective STL, Nelson, Melinda Oliver and the married duo of Terry and Ericka Harris united around a shared hope: to bring Black people in St. Louis to yoga.
To do that, Nelson says they had to strip away the alienating pressure that followed Black yoga practitioners in mostly white spaces. The next step was offering classes on a pay-what-you-want basis and providing free mats and equipment to anyone who showed up.
"We first need to give them a space where they don't have to prove themselves. So, check: All your teachers are Black," Nelson says. "Then we removed all the barriers. We gave them a space, and we gave them everything they needed to practice. All they had to do is bring their bodies."
But in the summer of 2020, St. Louis' Black yoga community wasn't just contending with the virus its students might inadvertently bring into the studio: There was the mental and emotional weight of police violence, as protesters filled the streets in St. Louis and across the country in response to the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
On streets and livestreams came the cry, "I can't breathe."
By July, Collective STL had moved its weekly yoga classes to Zoom streams and the grassy lot next to the studio. But the group didn't want to just get by with replacing their regular programming.
"We're all living through a pandemic, and we're all impacted and affected by that. We have witnessed these murders via social media, we're feeling the effects of that too," notes Ericka Harris, a Collective STL co-founder and longtime yoga instructor.
In July, the group launched a five-week series of public yoga events. They called it the Just Breathe Summer Series, and from its start at the Missouri History Museum, the event eventually attracted hundreds of people to the wide grassy area beneath the legs of the Gateway Arch.
There, first-timers practiced yoga alongside veterans. The event drew families and singles, the old and young. For Harris, the event showed just how far St. Louis' Black yoga community had come – and how they could come together to heal.
"We needed to create space for people to just breathe, to create a space to feel and process these feelings. That was very intentional," she says. "Sometimes, we don't realize how much we need to slow down and be still; we don't realize what we need until we actually access it."
Harris acknowledges that they can't predict what the near future will bring for the studio, which restarted its in-person classes the same week that local officials in St. Louis warned that coronavirus trends could soon send the city into yet another lockdown.
But even if St. Louis finds itself quarantined once again, the Black-led yoga classes at Collective STL will continue, whether that means more outdoor events (weather permitting) or moving back to livestreaming classes.
"Our mission is to bring yoga to Black people," Harris notes. "Even if we have to shut down the studio and do that on Zoom, that's something we can continue."
— Danny Wicentowski
Yoga Instructor Donna Rae Jones, donnaraejones.com
Yoga Buzz, yogabuzz.org
The Bee's Knees Yoga, thebeeskneesyoga.com
For more info on Collective STL, check out thecollectivestl.org. Yoga classes are open to all. All sign-ups are made through the Collective STL app, available on Android and iPhone. Although classes are free, donations of $10-20 per class are suggested for those who are able.
- JAIME LEES
If you're looking for a one-of-a-kind gift for that special someone, one of the best places in St. Louis to find unique and personalized gifts is Daily Disco (2103 Marconi Avenue, 314-802-7575). This local chainstitch embroidery shop cranks out custom wearables and other designs from its headquarters in the bustling Hill neighborhood. Shop owner and founder Abbey Eilermann works there with a small crew to produce made-to-order gifts like tea towels, patches, face masks, bandanas, bucket hats, clutch bags, beanies, berets, eye masks, jean jackets and more.
Daily Disco's storefront is currently closed to the public, but in addition to shipping items they also offer curbside pickup from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday right outside their happy little factory located near St. Ambrose Church and the popular Piazza Imo. You can order and then pick up most personalized items the same day, making Daily Disco the perfect shop for the impatient shopper.
But if you want to place a large custom order (like having a large photo or logo stitched onto the back of a vintage jean jacket), you should make sure to call them up and reserve your spot soon.
"Our slots for larger pieces are filling up fast," says Eilermann, "so if people want a larger piece done in time for the holidays, they should call in as soon as they can."
Though it usually takes about a week to get a big, elaborate design finished, most of the items they sell are designed to be customized in just a few minutes with just a name or a short phrase. The word "vote" stitched on a face mask was a recent hit, and many customers are eager to get a face mask stitched with their own name, so people know who they're looking at behind the cloth.
Eye masks are their newest offering, but the shop is about to launch a line of bags and pouches, too. And in addition to these personalized items, the store also sells other fun little gifts like retro hotel keychains, pins that look like a margarita, earrings featuring Dolly Parton and patches with the Gateway Arch styled as a big rainbow.
If you want to get a custom item but you're at a loss for inspiration, visit DailyDisco.com and click on the "personalization inspiration" tab for design ideas like symbols or social justice phrases or funny expressions like "aspiring retiree."
And if you know that your loved one would love the shop but you're unsure which item they'd like best, Daily Disco also offers gift cards so they can pick the perfect gift for themself.
— Jaime Lees
Raw Blend Custom Apparel, 1408 North Kingshighway, Suite 106, 314-398-1585, www.rawblendcustom.bigcartel.com
Lovin My Melanin, lovinmymelanin.com
Klutch by Khadejah, www.etsy.com/shop/klutchbykhadejah
- STEVEN DUONG
In October, Subterranean Books (6275 Delmar Boulevard, 314-862-6100) turned twenty years old. Two decades as an indie bookshop in the ever-changing Delmar Loop is an accomplishment.
"We had plans for a big public birthday bash," longtime manager Alex Weir says. "That got shelved."
Like a lot of other small businesses, Subterranean is doing everything it can to ride out the pandemic. During months of shutdowns, Weir was one of two employees laboring behind locked doors to pack orders for online shoppers, local delivery and curbside.
One of the hooks for Subterranean has always been the pleasure of walking in for a leisurely browse through the aisles, picking the way across sections that range from architecture to the latest big novel to young adult. The small space feels like a dream treehouse or a cozy ship's cabin, the walls neatly stuffed so that an interesting title is always within reach along the main floor. A pint-sized perch atop a flight of stairs at the back of the shop is an irresistible stop, even if you need nothing up there. And Teddy, the shop dog, is on duty five days a week.
It's a great place to hang out, but the pandemic made that impossible for six months. And even after reopening to walk-in traffic in September, they've had to limit the number of people in the shop at one time.
So how have they kept going? A core group of customers knows we're better off with Subterranean in St. Louis. The shop has had a frequent buyer program since the day it opened in October 2000, and members have supported the store through thick and thin.
"This year, it's been a lot of thin, but they've just been very loyal," Weir says.
Add in plenty of hustle and a growing number of people who'd rather spend their money with a local business than Amazon, and Weir says Subterranean has a lot to be grateful for during what has been a rough stretch.
The shop is now open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day for in-store shopping and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. for curbside pickup. You can also order online (store.subbooks.com) 24 hours a day.
The personalized service hasn't changed throughout the pandemic, and you can still find their book recommendations on Subterranean's website or by calling. And some day, they'll have that birthday bash, Weir says.
"We feel just lucky to still be here," he says, "and we'll do the celebrating later."
— Doyle Murphy
Dunaway Books, 3111 South Grand Boulevard, 314-771-7150, www.dunawaybooks.com
Left Bank Books, 399 North Euclid Avenue, 314-367-6731, www.left-bank.com
The Book House, 7352 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-968-4491, www.bookhousestl.com
EyeSeeMe, 7827 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-349-1122, www.eyeseeme.com
The Novel Neighbor, 7905 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves; 314-738-9384, thenovelneighbor.com
- STEVEN DUONG
The Local Local
Amy Schafer and Mary Hennesy, owners of Urban Matter (3179 South Grand Boulevard, 314-769-9349), had just opened a second storefront two doors south of their main shop when the pandemic began ravaging small businesses across the country.
"When that opportunity became available in January, we signed a lease and started planning," Schafer says, "and then COVID happened."
For four months, both locations were closed to customers. Slipping by through what they deemed "window shopping Urban Matter-style," people ordering items over the phone or email from window displays, they worried that the pandemic would mean permanent closure.
Today, through fighting spirit and their community of support, Urban Matter is back open to the public with both storefronts — and just in time for holiday shopping, too.
Urban Matter is filled with perfect gifts for anyone on your list. The store is best known for their Instagram-worthy home décor, spunky homemade jewelry and cards so notable that Chelsea Handler posted one on her Instagram.
Their first South Grand location, a corner shop at the Connecticut Street intersection, is focused on home goods. Handcrafted furniture, bar goods, kitchen supplies, pillows, books and candles are just some of the items shoppers can find at the quirky and eclectic storefront.
Their new location (3189 South Grand Boulevard, 314-833-3223) was created with the wants of South Grand shoppers in mind: The store specializes in pet items, women's clothing, jewelry and bath and body goods.
Regardless of the type of product, one thing is assured when purchasing at Urban Matter — the money will go towards helping the local economy.
"We're not buying most of our goods out of a catalog — we're buying most of our goods from a person," says Schafer. With each product that they purchase for the store, they try to meet the makers and form a relationship. Through the success of their business, the owner says, they hope to support other local businesses along the way.
The store has a staff of ten, including the owners. Schafer says that the money they earn is also paying the salaries of other St. Louis residents.
"So, your money is sort of doing double/triple duty in staying local, because the people that we're buying from are also here in St. Louis," she says.
Many customers report that the store's small, friendly staff similarly makes the shopping experience worthwhile. It's typical for visitors to make themselves at home, sit on their couches and spend time in the store. That's the kind of community Urban Matter offers, says Schafer.
While the effects of COVID-19 certainly aren't over for small businesses, Urban Matter's employees maintain hope that people will see their mission and support them.
"We aren't as busy as before," Schafer says, "but we feel very confident we will be around on the other side."
— Riley Mack
Union Studio, two locations, including 1605 Tower Grove Ave, 314-771-5398, stlunionstudio.com
Golden Gems, 3156 Cherokee Street, 314-925-8931, shopgoldengems.com
Civil Alchemy, 8154 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves; 314-801-7577, civilalchemy.com
- MATT WOODS
Randy Fauth has more than six million sports cards in his store, from baseball to hockey, football and basketball. His stock comes from more than 30 years of collecting.
Fauth, owner of the Sports Card Dugout (8041 Watson Road B, Webster Groves; 314-963-9666), started collecting cards as a kid. He saw the business firsthand when he started working at the World of Baseball Cards, a local shop, in 1982. When the owner passed away in 1990, Fauth decided to start his own shop.
As a kid, Fauth collected the cards of his heroes. Those few cards turned into a few million from America's top sports.
"I was always a person that wasn't just going to buy a few packs of cards and be happy with what I got," he says. "I wanted to get one of every card."
He's picked up some rare finds over the years, such as a Joe Namath rookie NFL card that Fauth has for sale with a current price tag of $4,000. That one is an eye-catcher, but St. Louis sports fans show much more interest in baseball and hockey. Fauth says vintage baseball cards have remained his favorite part of the hobby and job. One of his most cherished is a 1934 Lou Gehrig card that a customer walked into the store with about ten years ago. Goudey, the card's brand, was the first company to sell baseball cards with a stick of gum inside. Fauth says he does not want to sell the 86-year-old card just yet.
He also carries much more affordable cards for the novice collector. The good part about collecting sports cards, Fauth says, is that you can spend at any level you want.
He has seen an increase in popularity for what he calls "junk era" cards. These were produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and people can buy unopened boxes of them. These types of cards give older generations a chance to introduce sports cards to younger relatives.
Fauth says second- and even third-generation customers come in the store and are introduced to the sports card hobby. Recently, the popularity has shifted from baseball to a sport that hasn't been played professionally in St. Louis since 1976: basketball.
The demand for basketball cards has been high after a wave of COVID-19 shutdowns. It's hard to say why, but Fauth thinks some of the money that would have been spent at major sporting events is being redirected to sports memorabilia. He expects basketball cards to be a hot product for as long as the pandemic lasts, especially with the holiday season around the corner. After the initial gut punch of lost traffic, the coronavirus might actually help business in the long run with those homebound sports fans.
The Sports Card Dugout is open Tuesday through Friday 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
— Matt Woods
Collect Them All
Dogtown Sports Collectibles & Framing, 6410 Wise Avenue, firstname.lastname@example.org
1,000,000 Baseball Cards, 14560 Manchester Road #23, Manchester; 636-527-4424, www.onemillionbaseballcards.com
RbiCru7, 629 Salt Lick Road, Saint Peters; 636-387-0987, rbicru7.com