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'We wanted a party:' small business closures threaten Toronto's culture

TORONTO — Sam Conover has been running the numbers, trying to figure out how long she can keep the lights on at her Toronto-based lingerie store after the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to temporarily move the business online.


Sam Conover has been running the numbers, trying to figure out how long she can keep the lights on at her Toronto-based lingerie store after the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to temporarily move the business online.

Not only was opening Broad Lingerie, which specializes in bras for larger bust sizes, Conover's dream, it was also part of an effort to revitalize the once economically depressed Danforth East neighbourhood she calls home.

"I fear that this is going to result in going back to the bad old days where everything is boarded up, and the only things that are able to survive are, you know, a big Shoppers Drug Mart," Conover said.  

Conover is one of a number of small-business owners in Toronto struggling to stay afloat as they grapple with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The prospect of permanent closures raises questions about whether Canada's most populous city will come out of this crisis with its distinct texture intact, and is top of mind for Toronto Mayor John Tory. 

"One of my greatest fears is that Toronto comes through this crisis and sees its main street businesses decimated and our streets devoid of the activity that make our city's life in normal times so exciting and so fulfilling," Tory told a news conference this week.

Not the least, he noted, because of the businesses' importance to the economy.

"I don't have to tell you that Toronto's main streets are absolutely critical to the success of our city," Tory said. "They are the backbones of our residential neighbourhoods and an important component of the quality of life that we all enjoy. And we use them as a way of selling people on the Toronto experience."

Conover said she was able to pay her two staff members until the end of March, but after that, she had little choice but to lay them off — temporarily, she hopes.

She's now running the online store on her own, but it's unclear how long that will pay the rent, particularly as the shutdown goes on and would-be customers start cutting back on spending.

"I was always working a lot, but it's harder now, not knowing is this work for anything if I might end up having to shut my doors completely?" she said.

Her landlord has said she may be able to defer May rent and Conover has applied for the loan the federal government is offering to small businesses. But she said if she's approved, it may lead to a pile of debt she's unsure she'll be able to climb out of.

Those federal safety nets have already failed Vesuvio Pizzeria and Spaghetti House, a family-owned business that has been a fixture of the Junction neighbourhood in Toronto's west end for 63 years.

Despite offering delivery and take-out during the pandemic, the owners announced in a Facebook post that they could no longer afford to stay open and would not reopen after the crisis passes.

The news prompted hours-long lineups as people tried to purchase a final pie, but Piera Pugliese said she doubts the boost will change her 81-year-old husband Ettore's mind about closing down his business.

"I don't know what the future holds, but I don't think it will hold us," Pugliese said, noting her husband and his business partner wanted to retire anyway.

But she said this isn't how they hoped it would happen.

"We wanted a party," she said. "A farewell. A chance for customers to come in and see us, and give us a hug."

Instead, they will close quietly on Sunday, and Ettore and Piera Pugliese won't be there — they've been self-isolating at home for several weeks, thankful for the staff who have put themselves on the front lines in their stead.  

It's that quiet farewell that Brooke Manning is working diligently to avoid, taking a multi-pronged approach to keep her seven-year-old business open.

Likely General — part retail store, part event space and part art gallery — has moved its operations online and Manning said she's spending hours delivering local orders in an effort to make as much money as possible.

A couple of artists she regularly works with have also launched an online fundraiser to keep her in business, with a goal of raising $25,000 — the equivalent of two months' operating costs. So far, it's raised $10,000.

"After seven years of working my butt off at what we're doing — I never stopped working — to think that it would all end ... That would just kill me," said Manning.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2020.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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