NORWAY — With COVID-19 creeping through Maine, it is not business as usual in Norway. One person who had been in the Fair Share Co-op Market on Main Street tested positive for the virus two weeks ago. By March 28 Hannaford announced that an employee at its Oxford store had tested positive, although it was unclear when the associate fell ill.

Norway’s independent retailers are digging in through this tumultuous period. Many have opted to stay open for business as they work behind their locked doors. And those who have are finding that their customers and the community are circling the wagons, so to speak, and taking care of their locally-owned small establishments as best they can.

“I am here,” said Adrienne Cote of The Tribune book and gift store. “I am washing my hands like a maniac, I am in good health, and I have been completely overwhelmed by the support I’ve been given.”

Adrienne Cote continues to do business at The Tribune in Norway. The doors are locked but customers can do curbside pick-up and she is shipping custom orders. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Cote began considering non-traditional ways to garner business as she locked the front door and came up with the idea of mail-order Easter kits. This time of year she said she often gets a lot of “grandparent” traffic, people shopping for Easter-themed items to send to their grandchildren living away.

“I am taking personalized orders for them,” Cote explained. “The baseline kit comes with a children’s book, Easter goodies and a stuffed animal. But customers can select more if they wish.”

One of Cote’s first orders was to a local home, an order of seven kits. Her business has stayed steady due to putting out the word on the store’s Facebook page.

“I was so grateful,” she said. “My customers are really looking out, not just for me, but for my business neighbors as well.”

She will continue filling and shipping custom Easter kits until April 4.

Cote is not just selling kits and her staple products – books – but also activity-type items to help people pass the time at home. Demand is up puzzles and interactive projects for kids. She is re-ordering inventory as she goes and her distributor has been able to provide quick turnaround.

“And anecdotally, I’m seeing that my recent customers are also frequenting Fiber & Vine,” she said. “They’re picking up their books at my door, and then stopping at Fiber & Vine for curbside wine service.”

Down the street, Fiber & Vine owner Kim Hamlin echoed Cote’s recent experiences about customer loyalty. She has cut back on store hours but continues to do a decent business through phone, email and online orders.

“It has been overwhelming,” Hamlin said of the support she’s receiving from the community. “It helps that our mix of products allows people to sort of hunker down at home. But they are out to do their part to help us. I’m seeing familiar names and faces purchasing from me.”

Cote’s store employs one – her – so her operation is not greatly affected by scaled back hours. But Hamlin reluctantly laid off her two part-time employees for the time being.

“I’ve reduced hours and days, and I just didn’t know what our impact would be,” she said. “There is also an issue of whether employees are comfortable being out when they’re advised to stay in.”

Hamlin said that business has been strong enough that she expects her help to return once the health crisis has passed.

Transactions for both stores have changed significantly. Customers cannot even enter, where just a few weeks ago they would browse shelves and linger at will. Book and wine selections attract that type of shopping but customers have adapted.

“My ‘curbside’ interactions are very brief,” said Hamlin. “But my time on the phone? I am communicating so much more now.”

Kim Hamlin lingers at the door of Fiber & Vine. While the shop remains closed to foot traffic, wine sales continue and she is expanding her online crafting store and events. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Hamlin posted a video on Fiber & Vine’s Facebook page a couple of weeks ago, explaining her hours and new modes for customer sales. One novel promotion she offers is a challenge of her customers to allow her to pick out a wine that she thinks they will enjoy. She gets creative based on what she knows of her regular customers’ tastes and they get a new experience, expanding their pallet.

“Wine sales have been pretty good,” she noted.

Quiet time on the shop floor has allowed Hamlin to shore up her online store offerings. She has been adding products to her website since Maine began restricting public gatherings and non-essential businesses. It has helped make up for lost foot traffic.

Cote and Hamlin have postponed all scheduled events for the time being. There will be no author readings at The Tribune, and a performance artist scheduled for this spring will have to wait at least a season to appear. Wine tastings, crafting classes and a spoon carving class have been halted at Fiber & Vine for now.

But Hamlin has not given up on her regularly scheduled Tuesday afternoon knitting group. She just moved it online.

“I’m still doing the knitting group, through Zoom (video conferencing),” she said. “People should register on my website and they will find the group meeting virtually.”

The group normally brings more than a dozen knitters to the shop; those regulars now gather virtually from their homes. It has welcomed some new folks as well.

“Last week we had people join us from other states, we even had someone from Germany log in,” Hamlin said. “I’m going to expand this too. I am missing working with people on their projects since this all started. I can do Zoom appointments for virtual lessons. I think it’ll be great.”

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