Comix Experience owner Brian Hibbs holds a hand-drawn sign reminding folks to wear masks at the Divisadero Street location. The store, which launched an online shopping site during the shelter-in-place shutdown, reopened for curbside pickup on Monday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco is — tentatively, cautiously — open for business

Retailers begin offering curbside pickup

In one of the first significant loosening of coronavirus restrictions, many San Francisco retailers began opening their doors Monday after two months of closure.

San Francisco allowed retail stores to open for curbside pickup Monday, so long as they complied with precautions like markings to indicate six feet of distance for customers. Stores must not allow customers inside and instead make sales outside or in the doorway while not blocking pedestrian access to sidewalks.

Stores in enclosed centers like Westfield Centre are not yet allowed to open. Gov. Gavin Newsom modified the statewide shelter-in-place order with similar allowances for low-risk businesses on May 8 but San Francisco and other Bay Area counties delayed the start date.

Green Apple Books in the Richmond District reopened for curbside pickup on Monday, May 18, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco public health director Dr. Grant Colfax indicated that, based on how the hospitalization numbers change in the coming weeks, more restrictions could ease — or tighten once again. A peak of 90 confirmed coronavirus patients in hospital beds earlier this month has dropped to 53 as of Friday. The City had 2,131 confirmed cases and 36 deaths related to coronavirus as of Sunday.

“We need to make sure that, as we move around, the virus doesn’t move around as well,” Colfax said on Monday. “We would need to look at the data on a daily basis. It’s going to be different but I’m cautiously optimistic that if the numbers hold us, we’ll be able to go in that direction [of ease].”

Comix Experience owner Brian Hibbs said he expected this week to “be in shambles” as businesses get the hang of the new rules but is hoping it will help bring up revenue to about half of what the store usually makes. Since coronavirus disrupted daily life, the company’s main store on Divisadero Street has lost two-thirds of its business and its Ocean Avenue outpost lost 85 percent of sales, much brought in by foot traffic.

“That’s like half our sales — people walking around,” Hibbs said. “We can still sell you a book, but that high-touch level of talking about a book, telling you why it excites us…discoverability is so much of it.”

Jack’s San Francisco on Chestnut Street is open for curbside pickup by appointment only. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Like many businesses, customers can only approach the door of Comix Experience as staff hands them books they request online or in-person from noon to 5 p.m. The store didn’t have an online ordering mechanism before shelter-in-place took effect but whipped one up in the aftermath.

Revenue from the store’s three monthly curated graphic novel clubs has allowed Hibbs to continue paying his seven employees their usual wages, which are now ensured until July due to the receipt of a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan for small businesses.

“After July it becomes a giant question mark again,” Hibbs said. “We’re just trying to get our cash flow up.”

Stores like Jack’s San Francisco, a mom-and-pop clothing retailer on Chestnut Street, decided not to reopen for curbside business out of concern the costs would exceed the revenue. Owner Scott Knell said online sales have been enough to pay rent but he had to lay off his two part-time employees, who have since moved out of San Francisco.

“The whole idea of curbside for me doesn’t make any sense,” Knell said. “Even if they walk by, they can’t come in and see the staff. Basically all we’re doing is saying, ‘Go to the web,’ anyways.”

Once Knell can allow customers inside safely, he will reopen Jack’s.

Under California guidelines, the next step to re-open businesses would be to allow indoor retail shopping with adaptions like masks and other precautions. This could happen in the next few weeks in San Francisco, Colfax said. Re-opening schools, offices, and childcare — including summer camps — with modifications would also be part of the next phase.

“Unfortunately, we can’t give people specific dates,” said Mayor London Breed over Zoom on Monday. “Ultimately, the goal is to get people used to this new normal.”

On the other hand, things went well at Dog Eared Books, which began curbside pick-up service at its Valencia Street store.

“It’s great,” said owner Kate Razo, who added that she had about 100 customers, which included home deliveries and new orders as well as people who stopped by.

“We didn’t have any idea what to expect, honestly. You hope that books are as essential as you think they are. They are, they have been. People are thrilled. I’ve been answering the phone all week. People are just delighted that we’re here,” she said.

As she handled the phone, her daughter was behind a sneeze guard, at the store’s door. Her husband has been doing the free deliveries, and store manager Ryan Smith was on the computer, processing emails.

After the shelter-in-place, the store reopened on May 11, mailing orders and doing deliveries.

She admits they’re a little behind, with demand exceeding what’s in stock as the store didn’t receive new releases during the first weeks of the coronavirus crisis.

Yet customers have been generous, buying gift cards and responding to crowdfunding efforts online.

Razo said she has plans to begin curbside service at its Castro outlet, and later, when authorities give the OK, will reopen physical shelves for business.

A bookseller since 1985, Razo called her actions in the wake of the pandemic – which include applying for every grant she was able to apply for – just another adjustment to make in the ever-changing book industry.

‘It’s one more adaptation. It’s certainly something I didn’t see coming – with Amazon, you kind of saw it,” she said, adding, “It’s not any one thing that’s going to work here. We’ve got to keep trying everything we’re able to try. But the response is heartening. We like a good challenge.”

Staff writer Leslie Katz contributed to this report.

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