‘It’s not what this town is about’: Seal Beach’s Main Street struggles to come back
John “Lucky” Domingue stood by the pier in Seal Beach sipping coffee and gazing at the blue ocean Friday morning. It was nearly 10 a.m. The beach was empty and so was the tree-lined street behind him.
“It’s eerie,” he said. “It’s not what this town is about.”
No, the tiny coastal city, between Long Beach and Huntington Beach, is a tourist destination. The main street is lined with restaurants, clothing stores and antique shops, and long before the coronavirus arrived, it was booming.
But now, restaurants were allowed to do only takeout orders and food deliveries. Even though clothing stores were allowed to reopen Friday for curbside service only, most remained closed.
The stores taped messages to their display windows or front doors, letting shoppers know they remained closed but could schedule pickup orders.
At one antique shop, the following message was displayed on the window:
“Sorry, closed for safety. If you see something in the window or if you would like to pick up your layaway, please call…”
A message at another clothing store read: “We are here for your shopping needs. We will provide: Shopping by appointment. Curbside Service. Free shipping.”
Domingue, a Seal Beach resident and sideshow performer, said businesses are struggling and worried about the long-term economic effect the coronavirus will have on his town.
“It’s been difficult but this is a resilient town,” Domingue said. “I think we will bounce back, but how long will that take?”
He said there has been community discussions about possibly shutting down Main Street in the future to allow restaurants to serve customers outdoors to increase capacity while following social distancing rules. The closure would be only temporary until things returned to normal.
“They can’t fall back to the old ways,” Domingue said. “They have to be creative.
Farther down the street, Cynthia Freund, 48, laced up a roller skate inside her clothing store, Station 17. The skates are the most popular items in her store.
“Every day, I wake up to a new online sale of roller skates,” she said. “People are wanting to get out and exercise.”
But the core of her business is boho chic clothing, handmade jewelry and records. It often requires customers to come in and see the items for themselves.
“That’s the hardest thing — you can’t try anything, you can’t come into the store,” she said. “So many people want to come in.”
Freund used her business sign to block the entrance to her store so that customers don’t accidentally walk in. Although it has been a hard since the state issued stay-at-home orders, Freund has received some assistance to stay afloat.
The woman who owns the building shaved off $1,000 from Freund’s monthly $2,600 rent. The stimulus check also helped her, and now she’s waiting on a government small business loan. Additionally, she saved enough money before opening the business to make sure she had six months of rent in reserves.
Freund said she doesn’t plan on leaving even though her lease ends this month.
“This is my passion,” she said, glancing at her store. “This is what I want to do.”
For years, Freund was a wardrobe stylist for music videos and television commercials and shows. She eventually began selling clothes at music festivals and street fairs. Later, she started selling clothes at the Orange County Marketplace in Costa Mesa. But after years of setting up and tearing down, she wanted something more stable.
Two years ago, the little brick and glass store became vacant. Freund remembers looking at the commercial space. It was 700 square feet, much like the size of her pop-up boutique.
“I loved it, it was magical,” she said, recalling. “The area was so cute: tree-lined street and it’s near the water.”
Freund is already thinking of the future. She’s trying to figure out when customers are allowed back into the shop, what will she do? She thought about taking the IKEA concept, allowing customers to move through the store in one direction and having masks by the door for people who didn’t have any. She also thought about keeping only a certain number of people inside the store at any given time.
“It’s hard times, emotionally and financially,” she said. “I think when things get back up and running again, people are going to want to shop.
“It’s going to pick up where it left off,” she added.
A few businesses down, at the Knock-Knock Toys & Gifts store, Lisa McHenry was trying to work on her window display. There were puzzles, games and pool floats.
“Twister is probably not a game people want to play right now,” she said, chuckling as she removed the game from the display.
McHenry, a former schoolteacher, has been selling toys for 14 years in Seal Beach. She loves children and always wanted to open a store. She worked at a toy store in New York for five years.
She said puzzles have been selling well, and she plans to stay open because she’s committed to the community and her store.
“I don’t expect to be the same financially,” she said.
McHenry hopes that will change in time once vaccines are created and medicine to combat the coronavirus improves.
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