By Shefali Konda
Katherine McSwain is launching a new career as owner of a clothing store in Lexington after she lost her job in corporate finance because of the coronavirus pandemic.
She moved from Atlanta to Lexington to open Clover Boutique, a women’s and men’s apparel and accessory store at 14 W. Washington St. Her daughter, Maggie, is a sophomore at Washington and Lee University.
“I swear I did not come here to chase my child,” McSwain said. “It’s such an adorable town and it’s small and it’s somewhere of interest to me. And I found the most amazing place in town. I’m so lucky.”
Opening a business in the middle of a pandemic is risky. But Clover Boutique isn’t the only new business moving into downtown Lexington.
Electric Pilates and The Historian’s Books will open later in the spring, said Rebecca Logan, executive director of Main Street Lexington, an organization that promotes the downtown area.
According to Yelp’s latest Economic Impact Report, 60% of small businesses that closed temporarily due to the pandemic have shut down permanently in the U.S. The data measure business closures from last March to Aug. 31 by monitoring changes in business hours or descriptions on the Yelp app.
McSwain said she knows she is taking a chance. But she said she’s optimistic that her boutique will thrive in part because she plans to develop an online presence for her store to accommodate customer needs.
“Sometimes when you take a risk, you’re rewarded,” she said. “If you take risks when things are low, the possibility of rising to success might just be even greater. I’m starting a new chapter in my life in a new place with a totally new career. So, I’m hoping this will give me luck.”
Like McSwain, Frank Kalesnik said he wants to start a new chapter after retirement with his bookstore, The Historian’s Books, at 20 W. Washington St. He said he hopes to open the store by April.
Kalesnik said he retired from his job as an historian for the Air Force and the Marine Corps two years ago. He said he was drawn to Lexington because he studied and taught history at Virginia Military Institute and wanted to return to the town.
“I think, given Lexington’s historic character, people are excited about a new bookstore that’s focused on historical subjects,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll be the go-to-guy for people who are looking for a particular classic work of history that’s in good condition and a good price.”
Kalesnik said he anticipates online sales to drive his store during the pandemic.
“I’m hoping once the pandemic ends and tourism especially picks up, there will be a lot more foot traffic and word of mouth will spread to customers,” he said.
He said he’s in the process of building the website and listing the books he’ll offer for sale.
Electric Pilates, at 22 W. Nelson St., doesn’t have a set opening date. But it’s just one of the many exercise options available downtown.
Wendy Orrison, owner of Center of Gravity Studio, said she believes competition will inspire her to be the best pilates option in town.
“It’s a small town and there’s not a ton of people,” she said. “It will be interesting to see if they cut into our base a little bit. But we’re just going to keep doing what we do and do it well, and that’s the most we can do and try to not let it be a worry.”
Logan said Main Street Lexington has provided funding to help new businesses that are opening downtown, including a grant of up to $300 for storefront signs. Kalesnizk and McSwain said they’ve each applied for grants.
Logan said businesses in Lexington are also eligible for additional funding of up to $400 to offset marketing, shipping, or packaging costs created by the pandemic.
“I’m delighted that people, during a pandemic, are willing to start businesses,” she said. “And this way the storefronts don’t stay empty. It’s pleasant shock. We want to support downtown in all the ways we can.”