Downtown Lexington shops still recovering from pandemic

By Shefali Konda

Hannah Austin was a regular at Books & Co. at the corner of Nelson and Jefferson Streets in Lexington, comparing it to “your family’s living room.”

A view of downtown Lexington. Shops are starting to see some foot traffic after a quiet summer.

Austin, an attorney who has lived in Lexington for 13 years, enjoyed the store with her daughter, June. “I’ve shopped for books for my 4-year-old countless times,” Austin said.

But the toy and book store closed its doors this summer to become an online-only merchant after battling Amazon for years. Then it took another hit when the pandemic closed businesses for several months. The store’s owner could not be reached for comment.

Austin said it’s like losing a part of childhood. “It’s irreplaceable.”

Like countless downtowns, Lexington’s business community is starting to recover from lost foot traffic. And a fundraiser by Main Street Lexington, a marketing group, helped some newcomers open their doors.

Many downtown businesses depended on university students and Lexington visitors, said Executive Director Rebecca Logan. But funds from the Community Foundation for Rockbridge, Bath and Alleghany and a concert fundraiser brought in money for grants.

“Normally, we do a fundraiser in May or June called Rock the Bridge,” she said. “We adjusted by turning it into a virtual concert.” All donations go into the community fund for a COVID relief fund, Logan said.

Through their efforts, the community fund grew to almost $100,000, Logan said. Some downtown businesses also received a state grant of $10,000 from Virginia Main Street. Lift Lex, a gift card program, brought in almost $13,000 for participating businesses, she said.

Despite the economic hardships, new businesses like Legendary Eats and Meta Meals are moving into the area.

Legendary Eats, a New York-style bagel and sandwich shop, opened this August. It initially was set to open in April but was delayed due to the pandemic.

Legendary Eats, a New York-style bagel and sandwich shop, opened this August after a four-month delay due to the pandemic-forced closures across the country, said Jessica Harden owner of the shop.But locals provided a lot of help.

“Every time we have moved a large piece of equipment into the building, we have called on friends from the W&L and VMI coaching staffs to help with the heavy lifting,” Harden said. “Without fail a Lexington local would stop whatever they were doing to help out, whether it was eating ice cream on our porch or walking by with their dog.”

Meta Meals, a restaurant focused on international cuisine, will move into the West Nelson Street location previously occupied by Mano Taqueria restaurant, Logan said.

Over the summer, a few stores downtown closed, too.

Women’s clothing stores Gladiola Girls and Ladies Habit closed recently. Both stores performed well financially during the pandemic but chose to close down for personal reasons, Logan said.

Downtown businesses that have multiple locations have been hit especially hard since they must distribute funding amongst their stores, Logan said.

“So far, we have Walkabout Outfitters which has five or six locations They’ve been hit hard because they don’t have funds set aside for all 6 stores,” she said. “Now, they’ve done everything they can to stay afloat, and they’re doing okay. The second store is Ladles and Linens. They have 2 locations and they’re doing okay but still struggling.”

Matt Richards, assistant manager of Walkout Outfitters, said that business at the outdoor equipment and apparel store was almost non-existent during the summer. Even now with students back in town, business still remains quiet.

Some of the individual stores received funds from the Paycheck Protection Program and other small loans, he said.

“But as far as I know, we in the Lexington location, have not been able to get many local or small business loans,” Richards said. “We haven’t been at a complete loss, but it’s still definitely getting close to that margin line.”