Past the picket fence and the colorful wooden rocking chairs, the vibrant knick-knacks and the chalkboard advertising custom farm tables, the two-year-old spies a small lighted tree with a cherry red sleigh through the front window.
“Christmas! Christmas!” Charlotte shouts as she jumps up and down, begging to go inside.
When Charlotte and her parents, Amy and Alan, enter the small country store in Apex, they are quickly taken in by the sweet scent from the candles and candy, the creaking hardwood floors, and the mish-mash of home decor items. The Rusty Bucket feels more like a home than a store.
The owners, Pam and Mack Thorpe, greet the young family and begin doting on Charlotte, who shies away.
Mack, having recently welcomed his 11th grandchild, knows what to do. Guiding the little girl up the wooden ramp that leads to the back half of the store, he lets her pick out something from the candy section.
“What do you say?” Amy asks Charlotte. She thanks him in between licks of her lollipop.
The Thorpes treat their customers like family, and when the pandemic forced them to close the store for 80 days, they missed them.
They missed their business, too. The pandemic strained their finances. Right now, the Thorpes need a big holiday season for the shop to survive. They need to double their revenue to make it to next year.
The shopkeepers opened the Rusty Bucket 17 years ago. Pam had always dreamed of owning a little country store, and after she and Mack left the corporate world behind, they decided this would be their retirement plan.
When the pandemic began, Pam thought the store would be closed for a week, maybe two. There were things she could be doing, getting caught up on this or that. But it didn’t end. Rent was due. Insurance was due.
On the days when she began to panic, Pam would remind herself that she couldn’t control the pandemic.
“I had just decided that what happens, happens,” Pam says.
The Thorpes aren’t alone in facing financial straits, of course. According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, retail sales are expected to decline more than $500 billion from 2019 to 2020. Foot traffic was down by more than 62 percent, according to RetailNext.
Reviving the foot traffic and bringing people out to fill the Historic District’s streets is something the town of Apex had been focused on. The Thorpes are members of the Apex Downtown Business Association, which gelled during the Great Recession. Now its members have come together again for the pandemic. What were once monthly meetings are now weekly. They’ve also been able to work with the town’s small business coordinator to communicate their ideas and concerns.
For Pam and Mack, looking out for their two employees and ensuring they continued to be paid has been the hardest part of this year.
Debbie Jackson has worked for the Rusty Bucket for 15 years. They’re not her bosses, they’re her friends, she says. Pam and Debbie have bonded over their taste in home decor.
“My house looks just like this,” Jackson says, as she waves her hand at the rustic aesthetic in the store. “Mine and Pam’s.”
COVID-19 is scary for Jackson, because she is both a senior citizen and a lung cancer survivor.
She lives on Social Security and her part-time job, so the period that the store was closed was concerning. Pam and Mack still managed to pay their employees during that time, fulfilling a promise they’d made to themselves.
However, this couldn’t completely alleviate Jackson’s financial concerns.
Chemotherapy didn’t completely kill her cancer. She’s lucky there is medication she can take to control it, but it’s expensive. At one point, her medication was about $13,000 a month. She is grateful that Medicare and the state pay the majority of the cost, but she is still responsible for the co-pay.
During the 80-day period the store was closed, the Thorpes partially relied on revenue from the custom farm tables that Mack builds. After helping customers choose a style and guiding them on getting the measurements, he places them on the build list. It’s a six-month wait.
When Mack recently delivered a formal dining room table, the customer’s husband called her downstairs to see the table in the room for the first time. She stood on the platform of the stairway and began crying.
“The joy of seeing that lady’s tears is a reward that money can’t buy,” Mack says.
Despite these small victories, the store owners agree: They desperately need money from the stimulus package that’s languished in Congress, or there is a real risk their businesses will not survive.
The Rusty Bucket usually thrives this time of year. Mack is a professional Santa Claus, so the store tends to be a big hit.
One recent Friday night, a couple with a four-year-old boy ventured inside the store. He wandered around, taking everything in before stopping at the bottom of the ramp connecting the front and back of the store.
“Oh!” the boy exclaimed loudly. “This is the store where Santa was!”
From behind the counter, Mack leaned forward and pulled his face mask down so his long, white beard was visible.
“And how do you know he’s not here now?” Mack asked.
The boy ran to his parents, terrified, before going to sit down to tell Santa what he wanted for Christmas.
For Pam and Mack, these interactions could be their Christmas miracle. Everything else is out of their hands.
This article is published in partnership with the UNC Media Hub.
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