There were moments during the pandemic when Christina “Pip” Carty had chest pains: physical manifestations of the weight of trying to keep her small business afloat amid COVID-19 closures and a mounting stack of bills.
When Jeannine A. Cook got the email that she had to temporarily shut down her brand-new shop, six weeks after launching Harriett’s Books in Fishtown in February 2020, she slept in the store for days, terrified that she’d never be able to reopen.
COVID-19 claimed scores of small-business casualties around the region and across the country. But for those who made it to the other side — like Carty, who runs We Rock the Spectrum in Audubon, Camden County, a kids’ gym tailored to children with sensory needs, and Cook, who owns Harriett’s in Philadelphia and Ida’s Bookshop in Collingswood — the recipe was equal parts hard work and serendipity.
On Small Business Saturday, Carty and Cook reflected on the fear of those early days of the pandemic and the joy of making it to the other side.
We Rock the Spectrum Audubon — Pip Carty
Carty, who had worked for autism organizations and schools professionally, didn’t set out to own a kids’ gym. But when she discovered We Rock — an indoor playground that welcomes all kids but whose zip line, hammock swing, and climbing structure are designed to provide safe, stimulating experiences for those with autism and other sensory needs — it felt as if she found her calling.
“I said, ‘I have to do this,’” said Carty, who grew up and now raises her own family in Collingswood. “It seemed the perfect fit for me personally. I thought there was a real need in our community specifically.”
She opened her gym in 2018 (other locations of the franchise operate in Northeast Philadelphia and Mount Laurel) and quickly built a community, with a steady stream of families bringing kids in for open play and birthday parties.
Then came COVID-19, and the closure order. The gym remained shuttered for three months, and in July 2020, Carty’s landlord hit the business with $48,000 in maintenance fees. Carty had just reopened, offering gym time to one family at a time. She worked alone from early morning until late evening, not paying herself a dime, sanitizing the facility between customers.
“Families were so desperate to get their kids out of the house, and it kept people coming through outdoors, it kept us relevant,” said Carty. “It wasn’t lucrative; it barely paid our bills, but we were there when the community needed us.”
She launched a “pandemic pod,” a place for children not in physical school buildings to learn together. It didn’t make a profit, but it allowed her to keep some people employed. Carty’s mother lost her job during the pandemic, too, and shifted to working at the gym for free.
The debt still kept Carty up at night, though. She started shopping for Instacart on the side as a way to bring in some cash.
“I didn’t sleep, I had chest pains. I had never in my life felt the weight of something the way I felt that debt,” she said.
Eventually, the winds began to shift. A customer set up a GoFundMe for Carty, raising nearly $16,000 to help her pay down the debt. The campaign was a secret at first, and humbling for Carty, but it has helped her see We Rock’s value as more than a business. Remaining open is “a moral imperative,” she said.
“I know every day that we’re open, we make an impact in somebody’s life,” said Carty. “We can’t mess that up.”
These days, Carty has winnowed the debt down to $10,000 and taken a full-time job to shore up the business. Carty’s family still works at We Rock for free. And with vaccinations now available to those 5 and over, she can see the light at the end of the tunnel. After a 2020 when she earned $150,000 less than she had the prior year, We Rock’s numbers are now close to what they were in 2019.
Birthday parties pay the bills, and those bookings have picked up — someone just reserved space for July.
“There’s a lot of pressure to make it, but it’s my happy place,” said Carty. “I feel like we’re going to be OK if we can hold on a little longer. You have no idea how grateful I am.”
Harriett’s Bookshop and Ida’s Bookshop — Jeannine A. Cook
Pandemic business is all Cook knows. She opened Harriett’s, named for Harriet Tubman and created to celebrate women authors, artists, and activists, less than two months before COVID-19 hit. After a few weeks of thinking her dream was finished, Cook sprang into action, launching Essentials for Essentials, where community members donated money to buy books for essential workers.
The first crop of books sold out in an hour. People wrote “prescriptions” for doctors and nurses, sharing stories of loved ones or messages of thanks. The business landscape as the world had known it was in shambles, but something still shone through that kept Harriett’s going, Cook said.
“At the root of that was this element of community-building,” said Cook, a University of the Arts graduate. “Even in the midst of everything’s that’s happening, we needed each other more than ever before.”
Then, Cook decided to take the shop furniture outside, setting up books and trusting people to pay for them via CashApp or Venmo. Some were skeptical — would people steal the merchandise? Instead, they paid for books, and a community sprang up, complete with musicians and DJs who would come to play.
“I just believed,” said Cook. “Readers are pretty dope people. People came and supported, they needed an outlet. We were happy to be in a position where we could provide something.”
Then came George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, and the American racial reckoning that followed. Cook mobilized, traveling to Minneapolis and Louisville, Ky., where Breonna Taylor was slain by police in March 2020, to hand out more than 1,000 books to organizers and activists.
In the span of a few months, Cook went from thinking her business was over before it had a chance to take off to getting national press. Vogue wrote about her efforts, Cook appeared on the Today show, and she garnered interest and ink from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and other publications.
The attention Cook’s dream has garnered shocks her, still. Will Smith recently kicked off his book tour at Harriett’s; the author Isabel Wilkerson recently came to sign books there after she saw a viral TikTok Cook’s young staff insisted she post.
Cook even opened a second shop during the pandemic. She felt herself drawn to Collingswood, a progressive small town with a busy business corridor. Mid-pandemic was odd for a new venture, but a connected friend suggested the time might be right for a new store to replace businesses that hadn’t made it through the COVID-19 crunch.
Cook was mulling it when she got a call from Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, she remembers.
“He said, ‘Jeannine, we would love to have you. Let me know how we can support you,’” Cook remembers. So she jumped, and the town welcomed Ida’s, named for Ida B. Wells, the journalist and civil rights leader, with open arms.
And though Harriett’s hasn’t yet celebrated its second birthday, Cook can’t help but dream of a third venture, Sojourner’s, a bookshop with retreat space for women writers. She’s not there yet, but life keeps surprising Cook.
She made it through the pandemic, and on Friday, she delivered books to children on horseback, thanks to her work with the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. (Cook is worried that reading is not attractive enough to young people, and she wants to change that, so when she can, she drops books off in style.)
“We have to keep the awe about reading,” Cook said. “Children that get a book on a horse will not forget that book.”