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‘Ghost Town’: Nashville Businesses Adapt to a New Normal

May 8, 2020
Van Buren Street empty in Nashville, IN, in May 2020
Usually bustling with customers, Van Buren Street in Nashville is empty on a May afternoon during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Payton Knobeloch)

As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, small businesses across the country are struggling to stay afloat. If that’s apparent anywhere, it’s the quiet streets of Nashville, Indiana.

“It’s like a ghost town,” said Hilary Key, owner of The Toy Chest in downtown Nashville. “It’s just really weird to have a really nice day and see all the doors closed and nobody out.”

“It’s almost eerie to drive through town and see no people,” said Ashley Day, manager of Mulberry Cottage.

Mulberry Cottage closed down voluntarily before the stay-at-home order was put into place. Day, her sister and her mother have been working together since the order to come up with creative ways to reach customers without a storefront.

Not only have they expanded their website, but they also decided to start streaming on Facebook to show off new products and talk directly to loyal customers.

“It’s nice that for a couple hours, we can just kind of distract and think about something fun and pretty and frilly, and not just the chaos that’s going on around us,” Day said.

Just a few blocks away, The Toy Chest has also had to make business more digitally driven.  

The Toy Chest has expanded its website and is now offering free delivery to customers. The store’s online presence, however, just isn’t enough to match the store’s traditional sales.

According to Key, The Toy Chest’s weekend sales for April and May have been roughly 40 percent of their sales at the same time last year.

“We don’t get people who stumble into us,” Key said. “We don’t get any accidental business now.”

That loss of “accidental” business has forced Key to change her mind set about looking to the future.

“I’ve moved to a new mental place. There’s no more thinking about when this is over, or if we’ll survive this or how we can get through,” Key said. “We’re moving to the point that this is a new business in a new stage. We’re looking at this as a startup.”

Some businesses, however, have already had to make tough decisions about the future. Cathy Haggerty, of Cathy’s Corner, said the risk of bringing COVID-19 home from work is just too great. The business is shutting its doors for good on July 31.

As of Monday, May 4, businesses were legally able to open their doors to 50 percent capacity. But there are still mixed feelings among business owners about doing so.

“There’s people that say if it doesn’t happen soon, then they won’t survive,” said Debbie Bartes, owner of the Nashville Fudge Kitchen. “There are others that don’t want to risk their health or the health of the people that work with them. There’s a whole spectrum.”

According to Bartes, business owners from Nashville have been holding virtual meetings about the possibility of reopening soon.

Bartes said they’ve discussed ways the town can reopen to business safely. One of those possibilities is placing wash stations around town. Many of the changes, however, will be up to each business owner.

“I’ve thought about maybe having a doorman,” Bartes said. “We’ll open the door for people and then we can monitor how many there are in the store at one time.”

The Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau said in a statement that it is up to each individual business owner to decide when and how to open. They are, however, encouraging visitors to take extra precautions, such as bringing groceries from home instead of shopping at a Brown County grocery store.

In the end, we are just trying to do what's best for everyone in the new world we are living in,” the bureau said.

Both Mulberry Cottage and The Toy Chest have released statements on social media announcing they have decided to keep their storefronts closed a little while longer. Nashville Fudge Kitchen plans to open their doors on Monday, May 11.

The Nashville businesses are unsure of how many visitors Brown County will see in the near future, but they know that people who have been holed up inside for two months will be looking for something to do.

“I think on the tail end of this, people are still going to be very aware of how close they are to others,” Day said. “The nice thing is while Brown County is still a destination and a tourist area, it’s a tourist area with room to breathe.”

“I just hope it doesn’t happen earlier than it’s safe,” Key said. 

For business owners and visitors alike, it’s hard to predict what’s next for the town.

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