Jean Boujekian, owner of Vana’s watch and jewelry store at the corner of Mission Avenue and Fremont Street, has been living in a world of uncertainty since he had to shutter his store in mid-March.
He’s one person among many who own or work at small- or medium-sized businesses in the city. They all can — and we all should — feel the pain of these people.
Some of you who are reading this already know the feeling.
“Waiting is all you can do,” said Boujekian, who has owned Vana’s for nine years, and who has been working in South Pasadena for 14 years. “You don’t know if you are going to survive.”
Business, for Boujekian, is connected directly to his heart and his family.
“I’m responsible for seven souls at my home — my mother and dad, my wife, me and my three children,” he said, adding that his kids are 12, 10 and 7 years old.
The angst keeps Boujekian and his wife, Tiffany, up at night.
“You toss and turn all night and sometimes I get up and walk the house,” Tiffany said. “We try not to talk about finances in front of the children, but they are aware of what’s going on.
“We just try to keep each other sane,” she added.
To remain sane, Boujekian opened his store for three hours each day last week from 10-1 p.m. One day, he changed one watch battery. Before the shutdown, he might change 30-40 batteries a day.
Last week’s entire output was changing four or five batteries.
As a small business, Vana’s was officially not supposed to be open, but Boujekian said that the three hours each day helped him to keep his dreams alive.
“This is a passion, not another job,” he said. “I enjoy what I do, but I have to feed my family. I’ll do anything to do that, but this is my heart. This is what I know how to do.”
Boujekian noted that he had a financial cushion of about three months and some non-cash investments. He spent much the time he was closed doing construction
on an investment home he is trying to sell. The cushion, he said, is quickly dwindling. Tiffany said she is watching household expenses and cutting back on trips to the grocery store.
He said that the sudden closing with no idea of what would happen next wasn’t the best way to handle the situation, and now he wonders when and what the opening will look like, and what the new definition of “normal” will be.
“I don’t think it is going to be back like it was before,” he said. “It can’t go back to normal right away because people are not going to spend the money. I know I need business to go back to 60-75% of what it was — hopefully in the next three or four months.”
To do that, he’s going to discount watches and jewelry, as he did at times in the days before the shutdown. If business doesn’t pick up — or if COVID-19 causes additional disruptions or a drop-off in the fall — he’s then faced with the really difficult decisions. Does he let his repairman go and do everything himself?
Or, does he take on extra repair work from other stores and work 15-16 hour days?
Boujekian came to America from Lebanon when he was 14, and has been an American citizen since 2002. He remembers his hometown of Beirut being bombed and shut down for a short time, “but nothing like this.” Rather, this is a bomb that kills with a silent explosion.
At home, Tiffany has also seen her world turned upside down. With schools closed, their children are being homeschooled all week.
“There are online meetings and working with new programs. It’s an ordeal,” she said. “It’s very stressful. There are days that you have to keep after them because they don’t want to study.
“I’m teacher, cook, and cleaner,” Tiffany added. “It gets to you at times, but you roll with the punches.”
Laurie Wheeler, president of the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, has recently put out a survey asking how local businesses are faring and what they see in the future.
“Things are not good. Everyone is just hanging on,” Wheeler said, adding that answers are just coming in and there are not enough to be definitive.
Wheeler said that some restaurants have reported that they are doing “OK’ with carryout and deliveries. Some people reported applying for small business loans, but complained that there were not enough people to help them.
Boujekian said that he applied for the small business loan three days after they began processing them and was told they were out of money. He’s got his application in for the next round of money.
But there is one thing that is certain in his mind.
“I’ve got to survive,” he said. “There are no two ways about it.”