Family-run fiascos: small business as a coronavirus casualty deserves a post-mortem.

As the end of 2022 approaches, it’s essentially a truism that coronavirus-inspired closures devastated many small businesses.  For a brief period, the unemployment rate was as high as 14.4% (the rate in April 2020), a condition on par with the peak of the Great Recession, but it got there much more quickly this time around.  In fairness, it also recovered more quickly in some respects, but the long-term consequences linger, two years later.  Most large cities must countenance lingering scars symbolized through abundant “for lease” signs in their commercial districts.  And while virtually all businesses had to modify their day-to-day operations to some extent to account for social distancing, teleworking, occupancy maximums, or increased dependency on the internet for business transactions, the largest service-oriented corporations bore comparatively little onus.  The medium and small, family-run ones had far less capacity to adapt their business models to this cataclysmic fiat.  So they were the most likely to close.

I don’t need to fixate on the macro-level impacts; it’s well-worn journalistic territory at this point, my own extensive coverage notwithstanding.  But I’ll at least pivot to a slightly different milieu than most of my previous COVID contemplations: the effects on businesses in towns or small cities.  Chambersburg offers a fine example. 

I’ve featured this prosperous city of 22,000 in south-central Pennsylvania once before, but I didn’t really explore its roundabout-centered downtown, a central district big enough that it radiates outward in multiple directions, rather than a single corridor.  It hosts primarily locally managed small businesses as well; most of the national chains in the Chambersburg area sit along the I-81 highway corridor to the east of the heart of the city.  It’s a downtown of family-run businesses—of various mom-and-pops.

Most people’s gut reaction to this observation would be favorable; a downtown with unique small businesses can distinguish itself far more easily than one where national chains dominate.  I largely agree with this sentiment, but many years ago I noted a revitalizing Jefferson City, Missouri (population about double that of Chambersburg) where a Jimmy John’s had recently opened in a downtown otherwise exclusively the domain of local and family-run biz.  I didn’t ring the death knell for Jefferson City—in fact, I saw it as an indicator that rental rates were lurching upward, and bigger name businesses with deeper pockets were willing to test their luck in this otherwise unassuming, old-fashioned, attractive downtown.  (Or at least a franchise owner was willing to test the Jimmy John’s brand.  And ten years later, it looks like it’s still there.)  That said, Jefferson City doesn’t have an interstate anywhere near its city limits, so it lacks the opportunity for the sort of travel plaza restaurants that a town would otherwise host; Chambersburg gets three exits off of I-81, with all the attendant fast food one might expect. 

Returning the focus to this modest Pennsylvania’s city’s downtown, a quick visit during the dead of winter in 2021 showed that many small, often family-run businesses had endured the COVID-based restrictions quite admirably.  Keep in mind that lockdowns were still stringent in most of the country in January of that year.  On a bitterly cold day, it wasn’t surprising not to see a lot of people outside, but they were clearly indoors keeping these boutiques, restaurants, bookstores, and jewelry stores operational.  But not everywhere was flourishing.

Lyons and Company: a family-run business in Chambersburg PA that closed after COVID

Lyons and Company was a men’s clothier of precisely the type one encounters in main streets from coast to coast, no doubt run by a single Lyons family.  But a “FOR LEASE” sign hangs in the window.  Here’s what the interior looks like.

Lyons and Company: a family-run business in Chambersburg PA that closed after COVID

Old school.  This isn’t your dad’s fine clothing store; most likely it’s your grandpa’s.  But that sounds like a dig.  I’d call the survivability of places like Lyons and Company a testament to the insularity of towns and smaller cities like Chambersburg, except that, even in many large cities, the old-school pipe store (tobacconist), men’s formalwear, tailor shop (haberdashery), or even a hatter/milliner survived until at least the 1990s, and a few still endure today.

If about half of the words used in that previous sentence sounded old-fashioned, there’s a reason: these sort of shops are increasingly difficult to find, and the retail subculture they represent is approaching obsolescence—right along with the words that refer to them.  Places like Lyons and Company do seem a bit resilient in smaller communities, in no small part due to the fact that it’s a family-run business where, as bigger fish in a smaller pond, it is easier for such a family to achieve a level of prestige—a last name people recognize, with footprints all over the civic carpet.  Places like Lyons and Company know don’t just know their repeat customers, they know their sizes and brand preferences.  It’s easier to cultivate this familiarity in a smaller community where outsiders cannot blend so easily—simple as that.

But it wasn’t enough for Lyons and Company.  Comparing the antecedents, the “it” of familiarity lost out to the “it” of lockdowns and strict maximum occupancy measures, though Lyons and Company put in a valiant effort.  How do I know?

Of the three little sheets of paper adhered to the glass of the entrance door, the bottom one shows that the store operated under Pennsylvania’s social distancing measures.

This isn’t a long-shuttered business; it tried to operate during COVID.  And clearly failed.  But its online presence is so scant that I can’t find any specifics; given its prominent place on the main street of Chambersburg’s downtown, it’s a bit surprising that Chambersburg Public Opinion didn’t at least cover the announcement of its planned closure.  The most I see is a Twitter page last active in 2019.  Lyons and Company might not have had the boldest online presence, but the Twitter references a custom website.  The webpage is no longer active, but given that there appear to be plenty of businesses with the words “Lyons” and “Company” spread across the globe, the fact that this one in Chambersburg could claim the domain “lyonsandcompany.com” suggested that the family-run establishment embraced the Internet more quickly than a much bigger enterprise.

But the saddest indicator of this company’s demise is right there on the corner pillar.

Lyons and Company: a family-run institution in Chambersburg PA that closed after COVID

It had operated in Chambersburg for at least 115 years.  An institution, if you will.  It’s possible that the social distancing measures were enough to kill this business.  Specializing in men’s formal and casual wear (with an ostensible emphasis on the former), Lyons and Company was not likely a place where most customers purchased their clothes right off the rack.  Tending toward the upmarket, the men who purchased suits here most likely needed alterations first, so they had to get fitted, requiring standing in close proximity to take measurements.  In the earliest days of COVID when fear was great, even masks weren’t enough to stop many people from getting the jitters at that prospect.  This in itself may have caused patronage to plummet.  Incidentally, this custom service—the level of engagement between the tailor and the buyer—has probably long helped buffet Lyons and Company against competition in e-commerce; the many fast-fashion businesses can easily derive most of their revenue from a point-and-click order, but they will never replicate the person-to-person engagement of a family-run biz.  At the same time, global catastrophes like a pandemic didn’t stop people from buying clothes; they just forfeited the clothing stores that require interpersonal communication for that custom fit.  Thus, a faceless online vendor could more easily weather these conditions than Lyons and Company.

Then, of course, there’s the obvious consequence of lockdowns: that most white-collar operations—the sort of places that still demand men to appear formally (or at least semi-formally) dressed—did not require workers to come to the office for months, or even years.  Some still aren’t mandating a five-day work week.   The stay-at-home work model was devastating to national brands that specialized in men’s and women’s workplace attire: Banana Republic and Joseph A. Bank shuttered numerous stores.  Men didn’t use their formal clothes, and they didn’t need new ones.

As a result, we can at least infer the demise of a businesses that had endured through the Great Depression, through the social unrest of the 1960s, through real estate crash of the late 1980s, through the dot-com crash around 2000, the Great Recession.  But not this time.  And Lyons and Company is a microcosm for family-run businesses that faced similar circumstances across the country: the majority of studies took place mid-year 2021 (about 18 months into the disaster), but even back then estimates were that over one-third of American small businesses had temporarily or permanently shuttered.

Lyons and Company: a family-run business in Chambersburg PA that closed after COVID

A vacancy on a prominent street corner is a blight to a generally successful downtown like Chambersburg’s.  This old but well-maintained, branded façade hints at the age and endurability of the business within it, through the patina and outmoded typography—a subject I’ve explored in the past.  And, from what I can tell, a façade is all that’s left.  Once a new tenant leases the space, it will go away.  And, although Lyons and Company has been closed for (at most) 2.5 years, its online presence is vestigial at best: no news reports, no historic documents, no archived websites—just outdated business info from White Pages and a Chamber of Commerce.  Amazing how quickly a 115-year-old-business can fade into obscurity as though it never existed.  Multiply Lyons and Company by 100,000 and we have a mere hint of the cultural fingerprints that caustic coronavirus cleared away.  No more haberdasher, or milliner, or tobacconist or apothecary.

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5 thoughts on “Family-run fiascos: small business as a coronavirus casualty deserves a post-mortem.

  1. Chris B

    I think the pandemic was likely the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ll offer an alternate take.

    Men’s business dress has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, accelerating in the 90s. It’s something I saw firsthand in the laundry/drycleaning business through the 90s into the mid 00’s.

    Casual Fridays started in earnest in the mid 90s. But neatness still counted for enough that the khakis and (nice) golf shirts were often sent out for professional service. These clothes were still largely sold by traditional clothiers.

    Simultaneously the negative effects of decades of mismanagement of hazardous chemicals turned neighborhood drycleaning plants (virtually all small locally owned businesses) into pariahs among well-educated professionals. This drove people to seek out clothing that didn’t require drycleaning.*

    Garment manufacturers took note and developed enhanced “wrinkle free” fabrics that (they claimed) could be washed at home with no ironing; these clothes were mass-market (mid-range department stores and discount stores). They are relatively inexpensive and people aren’t afraid to throw them in the washer and dryer.

    Then: 9/11. Almost overnight many businesses went all-business-casual, all the time. It’s as if every (male) Boomer (then still in prime working years) said “enough” to dress shirts, suits, coats and ties.*

    *So the long way around to this: clothiers like Lyons & Co. were, like drycleaners, victims of much larger social/cultural changes around men’s business dress, consumer preferences, and technological advancement. This is one Main Street change that we can’t blame on interstates, suburbanization, or mostly on the Walmart effect. Or, IMO, on COVID.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Your points are definitely well-taken. I imagine you’re largely right. I’ve written about the negative impacts of dry cleaning closures on real estate, essentially transforming them into mini-brownfields unless another dry cleaner comes along. And, more likely now than in the past, those dry cleaners won’t come along. However, I’d say family-run dry cleaners are still more common than family-run menswear stores. They probably always were. And, by virtue of being more numerous, didn’t quite achieve the air of prestige: the Lyons family were (I’m speculating here) reasonably well known in a city the size of Chambersburg, or at least they could have been. Dry cleaners, though not ubiquitous like they were even 20 years ago, still fulfill a demand, and since many of them perform alterations, they’ve siphoned some of the tailoring business associated with many menswear shops.

      My one surprise is that a place like Lyons and Company made it this long. The issues you narrated are a long time coming, and really skyrocketed in the last 20 years. Keep in mind that, even in episodes of “The Office” the men typically wore ties except Fridays and management often wore suits….which makes the show seem a bit dated. Business casual is expected at my office (which has been back in session since July 2020) for four days a week, but nobody seems to care what shoes people wear, and Fridays the jeans are universal. The only time it’s heavily enforced is when we have planned guest/customer visits for conferences and whatnot. The trend in Washington these days for most semi-formal events, to wear a dress shirt and blazer but no tie. And, in the dead of winter, if a person decided to wear a hoodie over his/her Polo shirt all day at the office, no one would say anything.

      I’m amazed Lyons and Company lasted this long, but still sad that it had to end at the time that it did. It may have failed regardless, but COVID almost ensured that virtually no men in service-oriented professions would wear dress clothes unless absolutely necessary.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        I may be one of the few men my age who actually liked wearing suits or blazers and neckties. But I think it’s been 6-7 years since I bought a suit (and that off the sale rack at a higher end department store), and I’m down to wearing a tie once or twice a year. I still throw on a sport coat periodically, even for work.

        Like you, I’ve noticed that a blazer/sport coat over an open dress shirt (even with jeans) is what passes for “dressed up” most places.

        Last week we went to a Christmas music concert at our locally-famous Mid-Century Modern Stuffy Concert Hall…and out of all the men I could see while scanning during intermission, maybe a handful even had on sport coats; maybe one guy had on suit and tie. (I wore a Harris Tweed over jeans and was feeling a bit conspicuous. I suppose it matters that temperatures were in the single digits when the show ended.)

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          From my vantage point in our sacrosanct nation’s capital, the only people who must wear suits daily are those working on Capitol Hill. I’m pretty certain that most other federal employees only wear them on major occasions (conferences). And the DoD beltway of Northern Virginia, the requirements/expectations are no different than most of the rest of the country: suits only for the most important or events (meeting with a full bird Colonel or higher); otherwise the blazer-no-tie is just fine. I don’t mind wearing suits either, and I own enough ties that I definitely would like to put them to use occasionally.

          But given the continued degradation in standards for personal appearance (I’m pretty appalled at what teachers are allowed to wear in classrooms), I suppose it’s only going to continue to erode the demand for formalwear–unless some company a wee bit savvier than Balenciaga can find away to make suits and ties edgy and cool again.

          Reply

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