COVID-19 forces Short North shop Glean to go virtual

Andy Downing

Prior to the pandemic, there was a time when Dawn McCombs considered marketing Glean, the Short North boutique she owned and operated for eight years, and which she recently shuttered in response to COVID-19, as “the tiniest store in Columbus.” But with the emergence of the coronavirus, a trait that McCombs once considered an attribute morphed into a hindrance, a steep decrease in foot traffic escalated by a minuscule square footage that didn’t allow much room for social distancing.

“People would peer in the window, like, ‘No,’ and I get it,” McCombs said by phone in early December. “My foot traffic was probably below 50 percent, in part because of the store. As much as I loved [the small size] before, it definitely became a handicap.”

For McCombs, as with many business owners, the entirety of the pandemic has been a delicate balancing act, taking efforts to protect public health while also attempting to remain economically viable all with minimal to no guidance or assistance from state and federal authorities.

At times, this can mean being forced to navigate seemingly contrary orders. Karrio Ballard, co-owner of the restaurant and bar Addella’s on Oak,recently relayed his frustrations with separate directives issued by Gov. Mike DeWine and Franklin County, with DeWine setting a 10 p.m. curfew on businesses and the county following with a 28-day stay-at-home order. “It’s like, ‘We’re not going to force the businesses to close, but we’re going to tell people they shouldn’t go out, but you should still stay open even though there’s no people,’” Ballard said. “It’s extremely frustrating.”

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“Running a business in a pandemic, you’re trying to make decisions that are best for the business and best for the community, which often feel at odds. … It made me feel I had some heavy decisions to make on my own, versus being guided by leaders,” said McCombs, who welcomed the initial March shutdown, closing Glean days before DeWine locked down the state and reopening cautiously about a week after the initial order ended. “If you’re asking people not to go out except for essentials, but you’re telling people that they can go to work, that poses a really interesting and complex situation for a retail business owner, or a restaurant owner, or any type of business where they’re interacting with the public. I felt if I kept the store open, I was endangering myself but also endangering the public by providing an open space when I’m not selling essentials.”

For that reason, in November, when the level of COVID-19 transmission turned Franklin County “purple” on the color-codedOhio Public Health Advisory Alert System, McCombs made the difficult decision to close her brick-and-mortar shop, pivoting Glean to an online-only model. (The online retail shop is currently active, but McCombs is planning for a fuller relaunch sometime early in 2021, likely in February, with an inventory centered exclusively on her line of bath and body products.)

In early December, just weeks removed from her decision to close, McCombs said she was still feeling overwhelmed by the loss of the storefront, confident she had made the correct choice (the shop was becoming financially unviable, in addition to presenting persistent public health concerns) but still reeling from the sensation that she had been forced into severing ties. 

“I had toyed with [closing the shop] in the past, but I could never follow through with giving up the brick-and-mortar, because I really enjoyed so much being part of the community,” said McCombs, who, in addition to featuring one-offs handcrafted by local artists, alsoexhibited local artists inside the shop, embracing Glean as an offbeat Arts District gallery space. “You never knew who was going to walk through the door, and there was some wonder and excitement in that for me. That part of the business was very near and dear to my heart, but in light of all of this, it was just becoming more and more complicated, and, again, I found myself struggling to make decisions that were both good for the business and ethical. And that created a situation where I felt I needed to be a part of helping to keep people safe.”

Shortly after making this decision, McCombs learned that she’d received a grant for which she’d applied earlier in the year, funds from which can be applied in part to December rent on the closed shop, as well as to pivoting the business online. (As part of the grant, McCombs is required to confer with a business mentor, who also advised her that the only viable path forward was to pursue an online model.)

So, over the next couple of months, McCombs plans to work with local artists, photographers and designers to redesign the Glean website, shoot new product photos and prepare for a fuller 2021 relaunch of her bath and body line developments that are in essence returning the retailer to her business roots.

“Anybody who has created a business from nothing and then spent so many years growing it, that’s quite a lot to walk away from, which is one of the reasons I’m keeping it online,” McCombs said. “I sold my bath and body line at different places way before I opened Glean, so it’s been a part of me for many years. … I’m basically going back to my roots now, trying to keep a brand going that I’ve worked so hard at. So, who knows? It’s almost like the universe is pushing me in this direction, and I’m just going to believe there’s a bigger plan for me. Now I just have to get out of my own way and see where it takes me.”

Glean owner Dawn McCombs