For the first time in over a half-century, East Lansing’s Student Bookstore, known by locals as “SBS,” has temporarily closed its doors until the end of March. That’s when the people who run it plan to re-evaluate the situation in light of COVID-19.
According to Greg Ballein, owner of SBS, the Grand River Avenue store has never gone through anything like this before.
“In our sixty years of business, we have never been through anything like this before,” Ballein said. “We have never been closed for more than two days in a row for anything. This will be a test for us and we hope we can make it through.”
Ballein explained that the decision to close the store came because it was understood to be in the store staff’s and customers’ best interest in order to “minimize the spread of COVID-19.”
He added, “We feel the temporary closure of the physical store will lower the risk of our employees and customers being exposed to the coronavirus.”
His main concern now is staying afloat.
“We are still paying our full-time staff and providing health care benefits during this closure, as well as all of the costs associated with maintaining a physical property, so this is a definite drain on our finances,” Ballein said in an email to ELi.
He also explained that these closings could prove detrimental to many small businesses, especially with little to no government assistance.
“The state of Michigan has yet to step up and really do anything for small business,” said Ballein, who serves on East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority.
Low-interest federally-funded loans are now available in Michigan for some small businesses, but Ballein is looking for a different type of help.
“Local government is the only hope for small business in East Lansing,” he told ELi. “The new income tax has helped the city of East Lansing to build back up it’s ‘survival fund.’ Now is the time for tax dollars to flow the other way to support private businesses that make East Lansing unique and the fabric of our community.”
East Lansing has been hit with the economic ramifications of COVID-19 sooner and harder than many Michigan cities and towns because its economy is tied to Michigan State University’s operations.
Summer break and the winter holidays – when tens of thousands of people leave town – always present a struggle for local businesses. Now, two more months have been lopped off the academic year in terms of in-person classes.
With little local government assistance, Ballein warns, East Lansing may change radically.
“[If] businesses are forced to be closed to keep our communities safe, you will see a far different town come next September than this March.”
According to Ballein, a team effort is needed to keep East Lansing going.
“The economic ramifications are astounding, the social implications are incredibly sad,” Ballein said. “We’ve already lost a local business that is sorely missed in Mackerel Sky, we need to put all of our effort into saving downtown East Lansing.” (Mackerel Sky’s owners have said they closed chiefly because of the construction of the Center City District project, a $130 million project for which Ballein was a co-developer.)
Until SBS reopens, customers can use the store’s website to make purchases. Ballein tells ELi his store is adding merchandise onto the website to give customers a larger selection online. They are also offering a $5 bonus to any $25 dollar gift-card purchase plus free shipping on all orders regardless of dollar amount.
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Alice Dreger contributed reporting on the East Lansing economic context.