As Alibi Bookshop co-owner Karen Finlay stood outside her Vallejo venue on Saturday, one could almost imagine hearing the theme song to the show “Cheers.” As Finlay pointed directions to certain books in the store, she also seemed to know everyone’s name.
Whether it was a loyal customer, a city council member or even a bulldog, Finlay gave each one of them a smile wider than the Grand Canyon as the store had a steady line for “Small Business Saturday.” Finlay and her husband Jon Burchard co-own the shop.
In fact, when Finlay wasn’t smiling, she was shedding a tear or two, as she reflected on just how much the customers meant to her, especially during a trying and difficult 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic looming.
“When someone comes up to me today and says that they made it a point to come to visit our shop it just reinforces how strong this community is,” Finlay said. “They are so supportive and good to us and it’s a huge honor to be serve as their bookstore. Everywhere you look there is so much love from our customers.”
Customers, only a few at a time due to coronavirus restrictions, browsed the aisles looking for the right find or went straight up the front desk having already ordered their purchase online.
Finlay said the majority of shoppers on Saturday came for the new Barack Obama memoir, “A Promised Land” or for children’s books like “The Red Shoes”
“We’re doing pretty well today while being very careful, but not as well as we did last year,” Finlay said. “I’m a little disappointed they closed the Saturday’s Farmers’ Market as we rely on a lot of walk-ins. But that being said, I’m very grateful for everyone that has come in today. We have a good community right here and a bunch of the merchants here like Provisions have put out stuff on social media to help each other out.”
Across the street, Spruce Vallejo opened back up and had a steady line of customers. However, the pandemic and the loss of the Farmers’ Market wasn’t kind on Bambino’s, a restaurant and bar located on Georgia Street. When the Times-Herald visited there around noon there were no customers.
“It’s been really slow, and it’s quiet, especially with the Farmers’ Market closed today,” manager Hosnia Hasani said. “Every day is kind of a toss up since the pandemic. It’s especially hard for us because we opened in the beginning of the year in February, so we haven’t been able to build relationships with customers like other places around here that have more seniority. We do have some returning customers and we do appreciate all of them, but it’s been tough.”
Hosnia said the business relies a lot on third-party services and delivery and curb-side pickup, but there is cons with that as well.
“With the third-party services we can’t always guarantee the timing and the food isn’t quite as fresh out of the kitchen as it would be if people ate here,” Hosnia said. “We always offer daily deals and we have 31 beers on tap and I’ve learned that many people in Vallejo love their beer. They are big fans of the IPA’s and craft beers. So we do well there.”
Last week Solano County went back to the restrictive purple tier. When Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan was asked about what that as well as a curfew (which came later in the week) would do to Vallejo, he stressed that he was worried about small businesses in the city.
“I’m very worried about our economy and the small business person,” Sampayan said last week. “They really have to struggle and they still have bills to pay, insurance to pay. So they have my sympathy. Whatever helps them the most, that’s what I’m for. Maybe there can be more small business grants. This past (month) we lost the Front Room, and that’s been a staple in Vallejo.”
Away from downtown, Vallejo staple “Napoli’s” did its best on Saturday, but owner Anthony Guerrera said that the special day isn’t always that big for restaurants.
“I get it with it coming right after Black Friday, but for us it’s not always the best weekend because people are still eating their leftovers from Thanksgiving,” Guerrera said, with a little bit of a laugh. “Maybe they should give restaurants a separate day like…Tuesday. We are usually a little slow on Tuesday.”
But while Guerrera said that business was slow on Saturday, they have been staying afloat because of things they haven’t had to change.
“Before I talk about how this place had to change due to COVID-19, you have to acknowledge what we didn’t change and that’s our loyal customers,” the owner said. “We have built up all this goodwill throughout the years that people wanted to help us out. That was a problem that our loyal customers solved immediately. They see how hard our team members work and they reward them with tipping.
“But I’ve always felt people in the community come back to visit us because of the people behind the pizza,” Guerrera continued. “Our staff members go out of the way to bring a good experience to customers, whether it’s them dressing up on Halloween or just making someone feel comfortable while here.”
Guerrera noted that during the pandemic he’s proud he hasn’t had any layoffs. Napoli’s currently employs 22 people.
Loyal customers also visited “The Joy of Eating” on Springs Road, with two customers coming all the way from Yuba City while visiting family to visit the restaurant.
“They always have good food here,” Carlos Uriostegui said while waiting for his pickup order. “They have great biscuits and gravy.”
The restaurant’s manager, Amanda Kim, has been working at the venue for three years and said she misses her usual loyal customers the most.
“We have a small building, so if we stretched out all the tables six feet apart from each other there would only be about four tables,” Kim said. “It wouldn’t be worth it. So we rely a lot of DoorDash, which takes 30 percent. That stinks, but at least it’s still some kind of business for us.”
Next door to “The Joy of Eating” was longtime small business, “Bookworm Educational Supplies.” Last year the store had an event where one of the employees dressed up as children’s book character, “Pete the Cat.” This year the store had planned on having an event where kids could see Santa Claus and the Grinch dressed up, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, those plans had to be nixed.
Still, the store did decent business on Saturday, whether it was in person or online.
“I think people like us because we know our products and have a lot of knowledge about it,” owner Kelli Orona said. “We have a lot of books, educational games, toys and puzzles. And our puzzle selection has grown due to the pandemic. We have puzzles as well as coloring books for all ages.”
Employee Nicole Goltiao, who’s worked at the store for 17 years, said it’s been tough to not see as many customers.
“Everything has changed a lot because people are afraid to leave their homes and so they don’t get to have the experience of being in the store,” Goltiao said. “But everything in our store is now online and we have a picture of it. That was kind our summer project, to get a picture of everything in the store.”
Orona said that the business has been around long enough for her to see multiple generations of families come in to the store.
“Today I’ve had a few people tell me and thank me for staying open,” Orona said, with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘You can’t go away!’”
Finlay feels much the same way at Alibi Bookshops and even had to deal with a customer this week who only came in to tell her she would be buying a book for cheaper at Target.
“A place like Target or Amazon, they are able to take a hit on books because they get you to buy other stuff while you’re there,” Finlay said. “But you don’t get the same type of personalized service that you get at a local small business like ours. They aren’t going to listen about how your day is going and how hard you’ve had it since COVID-19. They aren’t going to say hi to your dogs. They aren’t going to know the exact book you should get to uplift you at a certain time. And the taxes you pay to them, they don’t go back into the your community. So it’s important to shop local.”