By Daniel Farber Huang
June 23, 2020
This article is part of a 5-part series on Princeton, New Jersey's COVID-19 response and recovery from different perspectives, including the arts scene, businesses, charities, government and Princeton University. This article originally appeared on centraljersey.com.
A private security guard inspects the stores in Princeton’s Palmer Square, many of which were closed due to New Jersey’s stay-at-home order, June 9, 2020.
(Photo by Daniel Farber Huang)
PRINCETON, N.J. — Lisa Ruddy, the owner of the Princeton Soup and Sandwich Company, said she remembers how fast COVID-19 brought her 16-year-old business to a screeching halt.
“Right at the onset we lost the university, let’s just start with that, which we do major catering for and not to mention foot traffic. We lost all of our catering customers … companies, Carnegie Center, doctors’ offices, everywhere that we go. The hotel closed down … Princeton just turned into a ghost town,” Ruddy said in a telephone interview.
Walking up and down Nassau Street recently, the wide open sidewalks and lack of pedestrian foot traffic are impossible to miss. The activity is a fraction of what it was before COVID-19 shut down much of the commerce along downtown Princeton’s main avenue, filled with high end retailers, independent stores and a wide range of restaurants.
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert is also looking forward to when the town will open up again once COVID-19 subsides and called to mind the same imagery of Princeton’s struggles.
“People come here from all over because it is just a beautiful place to walk around. It comes alive with people. It is just your classic, iconic downtown. It only works if the restaurants and stores are in business because it’s like a ghost town when things are shut,” Lempert said in a telephone interview.
A sign in the window of Mamoun’s Falafel restaurant on Witherspoon Street in Princeton
informs customers that face coverings are required for entry. (Photo by Daniel Farber Huang)
Princeton, which Tripadvisor.com called “one of the most famous college towns in the world” and “an exciting place to visit,” has been sharply impacted by COVID-19.
Princeton University closed its campus on March 19, sending the majority of its more than 8,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff members home. Although a small number of students who were unable to leave were allowed to remain in the dorms until the end of the semester, the campus is effectively dormant, depriving downtown of a previously steady customer base. All on-campus summer classes have been cancelled as well, further depriving local businesses of university-related customers into the coming months.
In addition to students and faculty, the university estimates it attracts 860,000 visitors to the campus annually.
Shortly after Princeton emptied its classrooms and campus, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy issued a “stay at home” order on March 21, effectively shutting down the entire state except for “essential” activities.
Independent bookseller Labyrinth Books, located on Nassau Street opposite the iron gates of Princeton University, has had an outpouring of support from the community in the form of curbside pickups and online orders, co-owner Dorothea von Moltke said in a May 28 email. Still, business has dropped off sharply since the beginning of the year.
“Last month, we were at 38 percent of revenues compared to last year, up from 25 percent in March, which is of course very encouraging. Nevertheless, these are also clearly not sustainable numbers,” she said.
To be able to operate in the current environment, von Moltke said the store’s operations will become far more complex, requiring outlays of money and more labor for far less in revenue.
She said Labyrinth handles all the coursebooks for Princeton University and uncertainty whether the university will have on-campus or online classes, or a combination, makes planning for future operations difficult.
“Not only do we have to keep traffic in the store at safe levels, we are also opening up back into a depression economy. It is impossible to gauge the effects of this,” von Moltke said.
Labyrinth Books co-owner Dorothea von Moltke with books being donated to a local
charity, Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project. (Photo courtesy of Labyrinth Books)
Other companies have resorted to crowdfunding donations to stay afloat.
Co-owners Andrew Mangone and John Roberto of the longstanding Hinkson’s office supply store on Spring Street said they launched a gofundme.com page in April, asking the community to help with payroll, account payables, rent and utilities as they struggle to stay open.
Mangone said in a telephone interview, “We kept the employees we had. We did have to shorten some hours but we stayed open. There were days that we did zero. Nobody came in.”
On Hinkson’s donations page, Mangone and Roberto said that Hinkson’s was purchased in 1919 by Harold Hinkson from the former owner “just at the end of the Spanish flu. Here we are 101 years later facing a similar global pandemic due to the COVID-19 crisis.”
So far Hinkson has raised $11,000 of its $30,000 goal from 114 donors according to its donation page.
“We have survived big box stores, e-commerce giants and fierce competition, but we are not certain we can survive this economic challenge… at least not alone,” Hinkson’s said on its website.
To operate in the new world of COVID-19, Mangone said Hinkson’s has worked hard to keep communications open with customers. After hours, the company’s phone number would forward to Mangone’s personal cellphone. They set up curbside deliveries, delivered to people’s houses and tried to make buying from Hinkson’s as convenient as possible.
“I worked there from when I was 18 years old full time in ‘72. It's not just about the money or anything, it’s something we really believe, it’s a part of our life,” Mangone said.
Local businesses have rallied together to support each other as sales have dried up for many companies.
Hamilton Jewelers, a high-end jewelry store located directly across the street from Princeton University’s main gate, organized the Princeton Community Auction, in which companies donated goods and services with proceeds to be distributed among local businesses in need.
Donated items ranged from a private tour of the Princeton University Art Museum to a coffee-making barista class to downtown parking passes.
Hamilton Jewelers’ fourth-generation family member Andrew Siegel said in a June 5 telephone interview, “We raised $40,000, which was incredible from the community, and we had about 24 businesses apply for funds. So each business is going to get their check, and it's actually going out in the mail today.’’
Other businesses have said they’ve received strong support from the community as well.
Eben Copple, director of hospitality at Genesis Hospitality Group, which manages a number of local restaurants said in an email, “The community has, on the whole, been exceptional during this crisis. Time and again guests have come to us offering their assistance. We feel the support in all our locations, from our regular guests at Chez Alice, to the many families who ordered from The Peacock Inn on Easter and Mother’s Day, to local schools buying pizza kits from Princeton Pi.”
A notice hangs in the window of Tandoori Bite on Witherspoon Street saying the restaurant
has closed permanently after 10 years in business. (Photo by Daniel Farber Huang)
The local municipal government has been working to support the town’s businesses where possible. Princeton Public Health Officer Jeff Grosser said in a May 25 interview with the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute,
“We assist retailers with implementing new federal, state and local guidelines. Being a smaller local health department, our staff members are able to make close connections with residents and businesses in town,” Grossner said.
Princeton’s Mayor Lempert said she is worried some businesses might not survive the current turmoil. To try and prevent that scenario from happening, she is trying to encourage people who have not been hit as hard financially to spend locally as much as possible.
“People are really worried about these business where we all have relationships …. The business owners live in town. It’s too painful to even think about that and nobody wants to let that happen,” she said.
On June 1, Gov. Murphy announced New Jersey will enter “Stage 2” of his administration’s Restart and Recovery plan. Effective June 15, nearly three months since the “stay at home” order was issued, Stage 2 recovery will permit outdoor dining and indoor, non-essential retail to resume, provided appropriate protections are in place.
Labyrinth Bookstore’s von Moltke said that the crisis has reaffirmed many of her core beliefs. “You can’t build or rebuild anything without committed employees, it is essential to keep their well-being front and center. Collaborations are essential, transparent communication is essential, advocating for progressive policy at the local and state level is essential.”
She also learned a lesson from this experience.
“No matter how hard you work, the future remains uncertain,” she said.