THEY are just some of the well-known faces on Darby Street and though they may have shut their doors, they are united in adapting, surviving and thriving once again.
Sole trader Nici Palmer has dealt with a lot in her 20-odd years of trading in the Cooks Hill strip.
Her first shop, Spinster Wares, opened in the early 90s. In 2006, she opened her current shop, Blackbird Corner, a treasure trove of Australian-made clothing and curiosities.
"Over the last 14 years, we've weathered localised events - the April super storms, Supercars, light rail disruption, it was bad for our area and business dropped 30 to 40 per cent then crept back," Ms Palmer says.
It took the global coronavirus pandemic to close her bricks and mortar shop and prompt her to launch an online store.
Her closest Darby Street neighbours - High Tea with Mrs Woo, Steel and Anchor, Cooks Hills Books and Ramjet - have all closed and are all pushing their online businesses while they apply for government assistance to keep them afloat until better times arrive.
Mrs Palmer is grateful her landlord has halved her rent while she continues to pay utility bills, insurance and council rates as her sales drop by about 70 to 85 per cent.
Blackbird Corner is known for supporting Australian makers, and its quirky items - from Anorak T-shirts (made by Ms Palmer's partner, Sean Pendleton) to the label My Fascist Mother, which Ms Palmer makes with her sister.
She feels for her stockists - "If you can't find their stuff with me go to their websites, they are freaking out and worried" - and is grateful to customers she suspects are buying things they don't really need to help.
"They have stepped up, I am part of the community and it's been reassuring," she says. "I could freak out about the 75 per cent drop but we are still doing 25 per cent."
Since closing, Ms Palmer has also been helping Mr Pendleton, a co-owner of Cooks Hill Books, and trying to focus on the silver linings.
"I try and find them every day, it's a bad time for mental health so you have to find positives - I try and share every funny meme I see," she says. "Before I go to bed, I write a list of things I have to do the next day for the shop, the book shop, at home, even if it is banal.'
Making plans for "exciting changes" when she reopens, Ms Palmer is passionate about the role of sole traders and urges the government to realise their collective might.
"We don't have any employees, we are just one person, we are not more important than anyone else but we are important!" she says.
"Small businesses are the soul of the city, we need more acknowledgment, also from council. Perhaps they could waive our rates?"
Nearby, Michelle Ramsay has closed her clothes boutique Ramjet but is in store most days to pack online orders.
"My shop turns 19 this year. Small business is always a challenge ... there is always something going on that affects you. This is what I want to do, I don't want to be anywhere else and I expect to be here another 20," she says.
COVID-19 has forced her to up the ante: she's launched her first online store where she tries to replicate the personal feeling of her store.
"I am the face of the shop and I am trying funny at-home shoots, or Iso Shoots as I call them, to target that personal side," she says. "Most of us are stuck at home - the first one I did, I was mowing my lawn in a fur coat."
Selling vintage-inspired, colourful clothes, Ramjet is known for its frivolity.
"Humour is paramount - who knows where mine comes from, my dad was quite funny too," says Ms Ramsay. "This is my livelihood. My partner has been put off, he's a theatre nurse and elective surgery has been cancelled. I'm doing the best I know how, through humour and being silly and probably being a bit crass and it seems to work for me."
Ms Ramsay's takings have been halved but she is encouraged by support from good customers to whom she also offers virtual styling.
"They text me personally, and we are delivering around Newcastle. So far so good, I will survive this depending how long it will go. I may be a fat alcoholic at the end."
Mr Pendleton, one of four business partners in Cooks Hill Books, said the bookstore lost its income until a week ago, when it started to push online sales via social media, showing pictures of books and allowing customers to message for prices.
"We don't have a fancy internet shop," he said.
"It's hit and miss, some days are good, others less so, but it gets a little bit of cash into the bank account, nothing to write home about."
Mr Pendleton said the bookstore - which has been trading for more than 35 years - was determining what support it could get from the government's stimulus packages until it was safe to reopen. He is in store daily, preparing for a reopening sale.
"It's very tidy! We date our books so anything that has been there too long we don't hang on to," he says.
High Tea With Mrs Woo co-owner Rowena Foong, who runs the business with siblings Jules and Angela, said the trio were devastated when the interstate design markets they travel to monthly in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane were cancelled due to government restrictions on public gatherings.
"We rely on them for a good proportion of our income, but they are also an important way to connect with our customers across Australia," she said. "We decided we needed to take positive actions to combat the overwhelm. Shift our focus."
The sisters have launched their popular Quarantine Series via IGTV as a way to stay connected with customers, present the clothing range they are working on and share their thoughts and processes each day.
"It has turned into a wonderful community building experience - we're flying by the seat of our drop crotch pants! - responding to our viewers creatively, pivoting and creating opportunities for meaningful business during these challenging times," Ms Foong said.
The siblings hope that they will be eligible for the JobKeeper stimulus package so they can reinstate staff and themselves in employment.
"We're challenged to work effectively and home school our kids at the moment. We're actually busier than ever! It takes time we no longer have, due to increased family commitments, to implement spontaneous ideas and learn how to use and take advantage of technology on offer," Ms Foong said. "For example, we are producing mending kits as part of our kintsugi for clothing practice and will use the Zoom video conference app to run Golden Mend Circle sessions with our customers across the country, and beyond. We have enquiries from viewers in the US who are keen to join in. We're working on it!"
Next door, Troy Pezely opened Steel & Anchor, stocking gifts and men's accessories, in May, 2019. He worked at Country Road for 11 years before going solo.
Mr Pezely is disappointed that coronavirus came at a time he knows can be busy in retail. Since closing he is working hard on online sales.
"I had a great weekend last weekend and a few good sales after but it has come quiet," he says.
Mr Pezely hopes people will shop more once they access government assistance.
"I've had a lot of local online orders and not just buying small things, they are spending quite a bit," he said.
If there is a positive from COVID-19, he speculates it may be that more people will consciously shop small and local: "A lot more people will be going out - I know I will!"
Together, not Alone is a partnership between Out of the Square, the Newcastle Herald and the Greater Bank. Its aim is to inspire some positivity in these difficult times and will feature a series of stories that explore kindness, innovation, creativity, celebration and mindfulness among businesses and the community.
Contact Penelope Green: email@example.com
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