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Ashland’s Independent Retailers Bank On Local Support This Holiday Season

Travel Essentials co-owner Nancy Bestor at her shop in downtown Ashland.
Erik Neumann/JPR
Travel Essentials co-owner Nancy Bestor at her shop in downtown Ashland.

Retailers are facing the first holiday season since the COVID-19 pandemic began 10 months ago. In small towns like Ashland, with many independent retailers, the stakes are especially high.

On a recent day at Travel Essentials, Nancy and Bob Bestor help a handful of customers with holiday shopping as alt-country music plays over the store's sound system.

Travel Essentials is a fixture of Main Street in downtown Ashland. Their store has been here since 1994.

While most retailers struggled this year amid the shutdowns, customer limits, and stay-home orders, running a travel store was especially difficult during a global pandemic.

“I would say we really started seeing a downturn in business in February, and even late January, but in March things really took a nosedive,” says Nancy Bestor. She and her husband Bob own the store.

No one was visiting Ashland, where tourism is a pillar of the economy. Nor were locals traveling. Travel Essentials had 10 employees, but now it’s just Bob and Nancy.

“You hear stories throughout the United States about mom-and-pop businesses that are struggling. We are mom and pop. I’m mom, Bob is pop,” she says. “And we’re here trying to make it and we’re just treading water, really, and we are not alone.”

Dana Preston with the Ashland Chamber of Commerce says the independent business community is a major part of what makes Ashland unique.

“We are not a downtown that is full of chain stores and chain restaurants,” Preston says. “I’m talking specifically to the downtown but you could really use all of Ashland.”

This year the Chamber and the state of Oregon are emphasizing shopping locally to support small businesses for the holidays in what has been a very hard year for retailers.

“So, making sure the local businesses capture as much of that business as they absolutely can is important every year, whether or not we’re in a pandemic, but absolutely important and absolutely critical for this year,” Preston says.

Travel Southern Oregon, a branch of the state’s tourism department, is promoting a program called “Give the Gift of Oregon.” It provides an online platform for independent retailers to sell their products on the Internet.

They’re trying to accommodate the many people who are staying home and shopping online this year says Executive Director of Travel Southern Oregon, Brad Niva.

“That’s fine and dandy if your business is in a place where you can have an online presence, but for so many small purveyors in our state, they don’t have that as a resource, nor do they have the time or the money to invest in an online platform,” he says.

Besides shopping local there is the potential for renewed federal and state support. Congress is finalizing a proposed $900 billion relief bill. That proposal would likely include billions in small business relief.

Oregon lawmakers are also meeting on Monday in a special legislative session that could allocate $400 million to COVID-19 relief, including potential aid for small businesses.

Outside Travel Essentials, Nancy Bestor looks down Main Street at a handful of empty storefronts. She says some businesses closed directly because of the pandemic and many others are struggling.

“We want to keep our town as terrific as it has been in years past,” Bestor says. “I think the only way we’re going to do that is if people continue to support our local restaurants [and] our local retailers, so that we can all stick around.”

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, the owners of Travel Essentials were named as Bob and Nancy Bestore. Their surname is correctly spelled Bestor.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.