Bluerock Gallery – coping through COVID

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I wondered how to get the word out about our local businesses. As a Black Diamond Councillor and a member of the recently formed Inter-municipal Economic Development Committee (IEDC), the growth and sustainability of our businesses is top of mind. The IEDC commissioned a report on the state of our business community and the main point that emerged was locals don’t know of all our wonderful companies. I figured with my writing background, I could easily feature a business every few weeks and help spread the word that way. Then the pandemic began. Now it is even more important we support our own, so here goes. To try to keep me impartial, each business I feature gets to pick the next one. I hope you enjoy learning about our community businesses and how they are coping.

Veronica Kloiber

There is something special about Black Diamond’s main street. To imagine it without even one of the shops is a painful exercise, but to think of it without Bluerock Gallery is not possible. The gallery has been a fixture of the downtown, in all its iterations, for decades.

“I’ve asked myself that over and over. Mainstreet now looks great, many beautiful, different stores – destination stores, it would be quite a tragedy to lose anyone,” said Tarek Nemr.

“I can’t imagine what main street would look like without Bluerock,” agreed Shelly Faulkner. “Not just for my own sake, because it’s mine and Tarek’s, both of us really believe in Black Diamond and want to see it thrive. I love Black Diamond; I think it’s a wonderful place.”

Tarek and Shelly are the co-owners of Bluerock Gallery, and in Shelly’s mind not so much owners but caretakers.

“It’s not ownership but stewardship,” she said. “We’ve inherited this amazing thing; people love the gallery.”

It’s comforting to know that neither are alone in steering the ship that is Bluerock Gallery, they can lean on one another for support and that leaning has never been more important.

“He’s the guy at the helm,” explained Shelly, of her business partner. “He’s so business minded and clear headed, I’m just so impressed by him. He is more comfortable being the face of the business. I feel really lucky for both our sakes, we have our roles and it seems to be working.”

If Tarek is the face of the gallery, Shelly is at home in the details and accoutrements. Happiest behind the scenes, she revels in quiet pages and the tactile elements that make up the shop.

“I look after the books – it’s something I have always loved. I take care of the shop, books, cards, textiles and jewellery,” she said.

The pair have been business partners for only a year. Their new roles as owners and caretakers were becoming comfortable and the business was humming along, boasting one of its best years in 2019. Then the pandemic hit.

“It came so quickly, it happened so quickly,” explained Nemr. One day he was placing orders and seemingly the next was locking his doors, in accordance with government regulations.

“On Saturday we opened, on Sunday we heard there were more cases. Monday it was busy but no more than 10 people at a time,” said Nemr. “At the start of pandemic on Monday, the 16th of March I made three orders. On Tuesday I had to cancel orders. It was a state of emergency and all galleries closed,” he explained.

 

“I’m so thankful to be in such an amazing town.”

 

Coming from Syria, Tarek is no stranger to government orders and social upheaval.

“Back home we had a thing that all stores close. The supermarkets closed,” he said.

“The state of panic and emergency is not strange but my past experience prepared me for this because after all the government and people are working together for this,” Tarek said of the Canadian response.

“I’m so thankful to be in such an amazing town,” he said of the local attitude to the government health measures. “I’m really impressed.”

With the doors locked and no customers to marvel in person at their collection, the owners of Bluerock Gallery cooked up a once in, it has never happened sale. Without asking any of their artists to make up the difference, Tarek and Shelly put on a 25 per cent off everything sale over the Easter weekend.

“The sale was amazing – it exceeded my expectations,” marvelled Tarek. “Thank you so much for the support.”

“We were run off our feet, and it was entirely a good thing,” agreed Shelly.

Having closed the shop on the 17th of March and with few online sales coming in, the sale (which was totally online, save for pickup) was just the ticket to not only get a much needed influx of sales but to remind people what kind of place they are missing.

“From March to the 10th of April we had very little amount of sales,” explained Tarek. “Some of our artists depend on sales from galleries to make a living and we are trying not to ask for government assistance.”

Now, with the success of the sale behind them, Tarek and Shelly have not been slacking. Being so dependent on online sales, the pair are committed to posting on Instagram and Facebook each day. As for upcoming plans, Tarek remained secretive.

“I certainly have some plans,” he teased. “The next event is Mother’s Day.”

Even without the bell on the front door to Bluerock Gallery heralding the entrance of customers to greet and delight, the gallery owners are far from bored. They are tidying up and readying for when the restrictions are lifted and they can welcome people into the shop once more.

“As you can imagine we have a lot of holes in the walls,” said Tarek. “We are painting the walls at the gallery. Now is a great time to do so.”

While neither will argue, the world is a strange place right now they are committed to what was entrusted to them – the gallery and are planning to come out the other side of the pandemic ready to reopen.

“There is some element of having to face a challenge. We’re in the middle of it and all you can do is try your best,” said Shelly. “I try to be philosophical about things, the previous owners dealt with a flood year. My hope is we can resume operations as they were before. It’s a totally different place without people in there.”

Black Diamond Rona – coping through COVID

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I wondered how to get the word out about our local businesses. As a Black Diamond Councillor and a member of the recently formed Inter-municipal Economic Development Committee (IEDC), the growth and sustainability of our businesses is top of mind. The IEDC commissioned a report on the state of our business community and the main point that emerged was locals don’t know of all our wonderful companies. I figured with my writing background, I could easily feature a business every few weeks and help spread the word that way. Then the pandemic began. Now it is even more important we support our own, so here goes. To try to keep me impartial, each business I feature gets to pick the next one. I hope you enjoy learning about our community businesses and how they are coping.

Veronica Kloiber


 

Matt Wagstaff is a numbers man. His background in finance has bent him this way, and no amount of virus talk, government health regulations, or fear of the future can change that. As one half of the ownership team at Rona Black Diamond, he is watching his spreadsheets closely and wondering how to make this new reality work.

“I’m a little bit nervous,” he admitted, “but we need to be optimistic.”

In years past, this being optimistic thing wouldn’t have been too hard. With the promise of spring just around the next bend and orders of plants and soil starting to trickle in, optimism should be easy to come by. The seasonal orders for soils, seeds, patio sets, plants, posts and rails, and outdoor lumber were placed months ago, bought and paid for as they say, when reality was very different.

“This is just the nature of the business and the season. This time of year, we’ve pre-bought for the next three months,” explained Wagstaff. In an ordinary year, he would have no reason to be overly concerned. As spring turns to summer and the sales are good, the credit gets paid off, no problem. But this is no ordinary year.

As the province laid out new restrictions and curtailed the economy to essential services, Wagstaff watched his March sales numbers fall flat. While the numbers showed him it was a good month traffic-wise with home builders pushing to get their projects completed, Wagstaff watched his business morph from a construction focus to a retail.

“There’s lots of uncertainty in the home building market,” explained Wagstaff. “We used to be 80/20 construction to retail, now more like 40/60.”

The numbers don’t mean what they used to in this new reality. That’s left Wagstaff looking for new measures of success and shifting focus to retail customers and a different outlook for his business.

“I’m thankful for every single customer
who’s come into our store.”

 

“Our days are full,” said Wagstaff of he and his team. “It’s gone from a contractor business to retail and we are thankful for all our customers.”

“I think it’s going to be easily worthwhile to focus on the seasonal aspect of our business,” mused Wagstaff. “We are getting plants in this season, we bought them in December and January.”

Also on the docket for customers are long-procrastinated home repairs and upgrades. “People are organizing their houses,” he stated. “People haven’t painted their walls in 15 years. There is good news there.”

“I’m thankful for every single customer who’s come into our store,” said Wagstaff. “We are focusing on customer service, protecting our staff and customers. We’re trying to keep as normal as possible.”

The only other break from normal is the store no longer accepts returns. “We’re not doing returns right now. We just can’t control that,” explained Wagstaff, whose team is also applying all recommended practices set out by the governments and Lowes’ management.

He and his staff are taking more phone calls than ever before, from people who need advice, to those who want to place an order and not come into the store. Rona Black Diamond has upped their home delivery game and have also been offering curbside pick-up.

One bright point so far is Wagstaff has not had to let any of his 20 employees go. He is well aware of the federal wage subsidy available to businesses but as of yet, his business does not qualify. Proof of a 30 per cent drop in monthly revenue compared to last year is required to access the subsidy and Wagstaff said March numbers did not meet that criteria.

Being a numbers man doesn’t grant access to a crystal ball so Wagstaff is still working on the next steps for the business. What his business will look like in the coming months is a question he cannot answer.

“There’s no playbook here. We’re taking every action possible to keep the business viable,” he said.

“It’s exciting and scary as hell,” Wagstaff admitted. “When I get home I’m mentally and physically exhausted and trying to make sense of it all. All we can do is support our customers and staff as best we can.”

Wagstaff asked to include one last thought: “We have all been asking for more time in our lives. Now is the time to embrace this and focus on trying to find the bright spots in our lives. We have so much to look forward to.”