FRIDAY, July 31 — East Lansing may look like a ghost town now, but that will change when students return to Michigan State University this fall. Once empty sidewalks could soon carry heavy foot traffic. As tens of thousands pour into the city, it will become increasingly harder to enforce face mask and social distancing rules.
Ray Walsh, owner of East Lansing’s Archives Book Shop and Curious Book Shop, said that he feels uncertain about the future. To him, predicting how the fall semester will go is no easier than predicting the weather. “We don’t know what’s coming in August right now. I don’t think anybody really does,” Walsh said. “East Lansing looks like a ghost town? Unfortunately, most college towns look that way. East Lansing is no exception.”
Walsh said that the store has been doing well, but he has definitely noticed a decline in customers this summer. Business has suffered because fewer people are strolling the sidewalks and window-shopping.
“People are coming in, but not in the numbers they have been in the past. We have our regular customers coming back; we have people from out of town,” Walsh said. But Curious has been missing out on those impulse buyers, the random students who discover the bookstore for the first time and never forget it.
Walsh said that small businesses with devoted, regular customers are the ones that are surviving the coronavirus outbreak. “A lot of people who are doing okay are the ones with regular customers coming back,” said Walsh. “You need them to stay in business.”
Curious closed for about three months, from early March to July. That gave Walsh time to restock the store with a plethora of books that customers have never seen before. He has been able to bring lots of inventory out of storage, so even regulars have something new to look at.
“We’re trying to be careful with our staff, our employees, and our customers,” said Walsh.
Both customers and employees are required to wear masks in the store. He also said that he enforces safe social distancing.
Businesses big and small in downtown East Lansing have suffered since the COVID-19 outbreak. Walsh noted that when he went to get his hair cut he was only the third customer at the barbershop that day. Later that week, he walked by and saw that the barbershop was closed.
“Many businesses in East Lansing have closed or moved out. I see that many buildings are available for rent,” said Walsh. “Even some of the national chains like Potbelly or Huntington Bank.” He pointed out that the liquor store, CVS and Target are still open.
“I was surprised that more than half the businesses here are open,” said Walsh. He said that the incidents at HopCat and Harper’s have rightfully scared people away from downtown East Lansing. Ingham County health officials reported more than 180 coronavirus cases linked to Harper’s earlier this month.
“Some of my staff have not returned because of health issues,” said Walsh. “It puts a bit of a strain on us.” He said that it’s been difficult to monitor all of Curious’ three stories with a reduced staff, not to mention the difficulty of handling a slew of calls from people looking to sell their used books. Still, Walsh said that he’s determined to keep the store open as long as he can keep his employees and customers safe.
“I do have a good staff to help me,” said Walsh. “We did get a loan. But we may have to pay back part of it. We’re not sure what’s coming next. These are challenging times for anybody.”