The Way We Work Now is a series chronicling how people’s lives and careers have fundamentally changed because of the pandemic.
Kate Goldwater, 36, owned a vintage clothing store in Manhattan called AuH2O. Goldwater tried to reopen her business in July after New York’s Covid-19 lockdown orders lifted, but her in-person sales never recovered. She is now closing her doors permanently. Goldwater spoke to Meredith Clark about saying goodbye to a retail space she’d spent the last 14 years building up.
I went to college in New York and started a little business out of my dorm room. People would give me clothes to alter, or they would like something I was wearing and I’d make one for them. By my senior year, I had started a website, and I was selling at little open air markets. Then at 22, I found a space in the East Village on Seventh Street and built my business. By January 2020, I employed several people for the store, and I had just hired someone to do our Instagram full-time to keep up with demand online.
And then in March, it was all coronavirus, all the time. It seemed like closing was the right thing to do — then the city put us all on lockdown anyway. I thought, “Okay, we’ll put a bunch of stuff on Instagram every day.” I didn’t have the time, with two kids and no childcare, to also start a full online store like some other businesses were doing, but at least this was a way to keep my customers happy. I never applied for the PPP because from what I’d heard, it took so long and you only could use it toward paying rent or your employees. I thought we’d coast and maybe this would only last a month or two. So Instagram became the store.
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On July 6, we opened back up. I didn’t think we were out of the woods yet. I didn’t know how it would work with only four people in the store at one time. Normally we had two dressing rooms full and 15 people inside. With limited people feeling comfortable going out, I was really, really skeptical. Sales were about one-fifth of what they used to be, and my overhead and expenses were about the same. That first month, it was really hard to look at the numbers and think about how we were going to do this. We had one really rainy day, and the day after that was a $10 day. We had already gone through a lot of our savings, and we couldn’t see an end in sight.
I started to feel very overwhelmed. I was running an online store and a physical store when I had very part-time childcare. Even if we could scrape by for the next however long, I didn’t know if I could do it mentally. I didn’t know if I had it in me to make as little as I was just to be waiting this out. I talked to people who said they loved not having to go into a store anymore, “I’m definitely not going out if I don’t have to.” I support that. It could be back to normal again by June of next year, but maybe not until September. It’s just too long for us to wait and see. I feel like we’d already gambled by being open these last two months.
After Donald Trump first won, I remember everybody said, “Well, how bad can it really be?” Now you see: It’s “190,000 people are dead” bad!
About a month ago, we realized I’d probably have to close the shop. We talked about it for a week, ran all the numbers, and went through how we could make it work — if we could make it work. We realized that we couldn’t. I had opened up October 1, 2006. And I thought that would be a sentimental day to break the store down, to close up then and have it be a full 14 years.
This did not have to happen. After Donald Trump first won, I remember everybody said, “Well, how bad can it really be?” Now you see: It’s “190,000 people are dead” bad! New York was on lockdown and had it under control, but no one else was. Our president was politicizing wearing masks, and now nobody can travel here. With my store being so reliant on that foot traffic and tourists, I was just so angry!
My business is closed. This has ruined something that I’ve built over the last 14 years. I joke with my husband that it’s just a secondhand store. I wasn’t saving lives, but I think I really did have something special in the East Village. I really do feel like I’m letting everyone down by closing it, but I also don’t think that I have another option.
I’ve been crying all the time. It’s still so unbelievably sad, because I lived at that store for so many years before I was able to have other people working there. I knew so many regulars. Luckily, our customers have been loyal about shopping our Instagram over the last six months. I think we’ll ramp up how much we sell there. We’ve also started an Etsy store. Maybe someday, when things go back to normal, we’ll be able to open up another store or do sidewalk sales. Even though closing the space is so gut-wrenching, I still feel like I’ll have the business, and people can still connect with us there.
I’ve read all the articles on whether or not New York is dead. I feel bad contributing to that, but if you have to leave the city, I understand. And if you have to close your business because you can’t wait it out, I understand. I think that things might be on pause, and that it might be okay. I think that everything will come back. Eventually people will move back. Businesses will open. But I think that it’s just understandable that everybody has to do what’s right for them right now.