Many times during the last several months, I have stood on First Street, our beautiful little city perched on the waterfront, and could almost feel the collective breath being held.
As co-owner of one of the businesses that lines this street, I too have felt the overwhelming uncertainty of the past year deeply—wavering at times between worry and hope, and sometimes finding myself with the muddled mixture of both. Although this is not the first time I’ve navigated a small business through a recession, this particular experience has been as new to me as for all of us—the economic impact being only part of the equation.
Small businesses like mine have always been important in establishing a town’s identity: they play a major role in what attracts people to a community, and they reflect the personality of the citizens. Throughout this past year, I have been reminded of this as I anxiously watched Benicia’s local business landscape change. While often mourning the loss of some of our favorite establishments, I was simultaneously reassured by the emergence of new ones and their fresh perspectives. Even now, looking out at our city after a year that has challenged everything important to us, I am overwhelmed with appreciation for this resilient sector and what it represents for us, as a community.
When my husband, David, and I first visited Benicia several years ago, we were happily surprised by the richly diverse and distinctive personality that the relatively small city had. Unexpectedly un-small-townish, Benicia’s beautiful convergence of historical significance, progressive thinking, gorgeous climate, art, industry, and playfulness has attracted a community that’s wide in its variety of people and the small businesses throughout. With its enduring legacy as a hub for creativity, Benicia still boasts a wealth of artists, with styles as varied as our citizens and represented in all their levels of mastery by many of our galleries, restaurants, shops, salons, florists, and creative spaces. Historic, yet surprisingly cosmopolitan, our downtown features a myriad of boutiques that sell everything from quality antiques to clothing from named designers; and businesses in the health & wellness field with approaches ranging from the traditional to somewhat unconventional.
And the restaurants…
What city would be complete without its own unique menagerie of bars and eating establishments for people to gather together to let off some steam, listen to music, and enjoy each other’s company? This hard-hit sector of Benicia’s small business community was perhaps the most missed by many of us during this pandemic. From beer gardens to contemporary dining, this town loves its variety of cuisine and the amazing people who bring it to us.
Without a doubt, throughout this challenging year, the creativity, individualism, and dedication of our small business sector has shone. Massive amounts of ingenuity became a requirement to operate under pressure. No longer focused on growth, most of us concentrated instead on merely maintaining our survival. We looked for new ways to do business, and as we shifted gears, it often felt like we were developing brand-new businesses on-the-fly. We learned new technologies, created online storefronts, retrained our staff, and doubled our marketing efforts in order to inform the community of our efforts. Many of us did these things with fewer people, supplies, and general resources.
And we drew on our immense creativity—a trait that Benicia is known for.
Businesses hosted Facebook Live events and literal window shopping for their customers when doing an online storefront wasn’t an option for them. Others figured out ways in which to offer their services to people at home, utilizing Zoom and other platforms, and still others creatively utilized outdoor space and offered cross-promotions in order to support themselves and others. Many businesses offered free home delivery of their products—oftentimes recruiting their own friends and family members willing to go the extra lengths to sanitize their cars in order to offer safe deliveries.
These impressive displays of persistence, ingenuity, and optimism would not have been enough, however, if it had not been for Benicia’s community and its spirit of generosity and social consciousness—which included supporting our small businesses, while still being responsible with our collective health. Many people continued paying membership fees to businesses that were temporarily closed, bought gift certificates to be used when things reopened, paid for haircuts that they didn’t get, shopped whenever it was safe to do so, and ordered from local restaurants as often as they were able. Signs reminding us that “We’re All in This Together” popped up everywhere. A true solidarity emerged, and during a time that offered little else in the way of hope, it helped to provide us all with a gentle assurance of Benicia’s continued vibrancy.