For the first time in eight years, owners of Emerald Phoenix Comics in Aldergrove were unable to pay $1,700 rent this April.
They’re saying their decision to now ultimately close up shop is a result of the federal government’s inaction to protect “truly small businesses” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have been crippled as a business,” expounded co-owner Chris Bodnar in a letter sent to government officials Sunday.
“The government has talked about helping small businesses but the things that come down do not help the small mom and pop shops. In our case it’s ‘too little too late.”
Bodnar and partner Katrina Halliwell first relocated their quaint shop full of comics, board and card games, and collectibles from Abbotsford in October 2017.
They situated their store on 27127 Fraser Hwy. and relished in a community of regular gamers to keep them financially afloat – up until now.
The pandemic has halved their sales in the last two weeks of March compared to last year, Bodnar said.
“We started to see a lot less walk in traffic,” he explained, and most comic suppliers have shut down to comply with government mandates.
As a result, not enough store profit was made to cover the cost of rent.
The couple was expected to pay April’s rent, with the landlord giving them the option of deferring or making partial payments.
But Bodnar said “to keep piling up rent and operating expenses is too risky when there’s no end [to the pandemic] in sight.”
That’s why the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) is calling on the federal government to introduce rent subsidies for hard-hit businesses by COVID-19, among other emergency measures.
“If the provincial government had enacted some sort of temporary rent-freeze on commercial properties with businesses adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic instead of leaving it up to the landlords it would have alleviated a lot of stress,” Bodnar added.
Emergency loans out of reach for many small businesses
Bodnar went on to say the federal government’s definition of “small business” is not inclusive enough, considering the $25 billion dollar loan program it announced March 27.
Starting mid-April, Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) will provide interest-free loans of up to $40,000 to businesses grappling with the financial consequences of COVID-19.
“We don’t qualify for the up to $40,000 loan they mentioned – the requirement is a minimum $50,000 payroll in 2019,” Bodnar said.
“As a mom and pop shop we keep ourselves afloat each month. ‘No one ever opened a comic shop to make lots of money, it’s a business of passion’.”
CFIB executive vice-president Laura Jones is urging hardship grants of $5,000 a month be made available to those threatened by revenue losses.
Bodnar pointed out that a near $10,000 of the new CEBA loan is eligible for forgiveness if businesses repay the $30,000 in two years.
Jones, with CFIB, is urging the government to make the forgivable portion of the loan ($10,000) a grant available to small businesses instead.
Langley City business Forever Yours Lingerie just made the $50,000 payroll cut-off, and applied for a CEBA loan.
Owner Sonya Perkins said if she receives the maximum $40,000 “it will only cover a quarter of [her store’s] monthly bills.”
What the federal government announced is giving dying businesses false hope, Perkins said.
Especially for businesses without a website to turn to in order to sell product.
“It sounds great but in reality it’s not the support we need – we need rent relief.”
Long-time customer, Aldergrove resident Stephen James, was disheartened by news of Emerald Phoenix Comics’ closure.
“Some of my best memories playing Magic: The Gathering were at your shop. I met Jesse Raven there and we are still friends to this day. Thank you for creating a space for that,” James told Bodnar.
His friend Raven, another loyal customer, ardently agreed.
“I’m having trouble expressing just how unfortunate this is. Some of my best memories of nerding out and playing games were at the Phoenix nest,” Raven said.
Store regulars were what made Bodnar and Halliwell’s decision to shutter so gut-wrenching, they told the Aldergrove Star.
“We didn’t want to be another vacant storefront in the heart of Aldergrove,” Bodnar said.
“But with a heavy heart we must submit. This will be our last month we will be open. We’ve exhausted all of our options.”
“I’m sure we are not the first small business to fall to this nor will we be the last,” he said.
Nearly a third of small business owners that have been forced to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic say they’re not sure if they’ll ever reopen, according to a recent CFIB survey of 9,700 Canadian businesses.