Hillsdale Business Update

[Posted August 12, 2020]


The pandemic continues to stress test local businesses. Here is how three Hillsdale business owners are faring.

The End of a Hillsdale Institution

Lai Saelor in front of her shop.

After 22 years, Lai Saelor, owner of Hillsdale Barber is calling it quits. In a message to her clients, she says:

“I’d like to thank each and every one of you for being my friend and mentor for the past 22 years. Your financial and emotional support is deeply appreciated. You helped make my American dream come true and I thank you for that. I spent half of my life here. It’s hard to leave, but good things don't last forever. I am excited for a new adventure and a new chapter of my life. I hope everyone stays safe, healthy and happy. I will do the same.

“Thank you for everything, love to you all.

--Lai Saelor”

Originally from Laos, Saelor bought the business more than two decades ago from the previous Hillsdale barber, Jack Carly, who, she says, seemed to only cut hair for his friends. Saelor says it was like starting a new business because it didn’t come with any clientele: “He told me I had the potential to do well there because he didn't cut kids, women or do a clippers cut. I was wondering whose hair he cut?”

Along with salons around the state, Saelor’s shop was shuttered during the initial quarantine period from mid-March to mid-June. She re-opened as soon as allowed, with all the safety precautions in place. But customers stayed away. Since re-opening, Saelor estimates that only about 30% of her clientele have returned. She understands their reluctance (most are older), and wants to keep them safe, but figures business will only get slower with the onset of cooler weather and flu season.

The mood of the commercial strip that houses her shop has changed from bustling to deserted. Business has slowed at neighboring shops, while the Bank of America a few doors down has temporarily suspended all operations except for the ATM. Much of her day is now spent alone looking at out at the empty parking lot.

Saelor says financially she could probably hold out a little longer, but the uncertainty is the hardest part. Aside from her two children, owning the Hillsdale Barber shop has been one of the best things to happen to her, so it was important to her end things on a positive note.

The shop will close on August 21.

Print Shop Finds New Ways to Give the Customer What they Want

Kath and Jeff Axline, owners of Symbiosis Printing and neighbors to Saelor’s salon in the row of small storefronts just off the north side of Capitol Highway, had two really scary weeks at the beginning of the shutdown. Deemed “essential” and allowed to remain open, they nonetheless saw no business in the first two weeks.

Customers slowly came back as Kath Axline used social media and email to let people know they were open. The mix of business has changed: with art shows cancelled or postponed indefinitely, Symbiosis has turned to more business printing, stickers, and laminated signs. On the plus side, Kath Axline says they learned that their equipment had features they weren’t aware of, like “an amazing fold and crease.”

Being a family-run business has made it easier for Symbiosis to stay open. They don’t have to worry about introducing other staff into their “covid bubble, and their adult children are home and can help take care of their seven-year-old. With savings and a federal Paycheck Protection Programs loan, the Axlines think they should be able to make it through while sales come back.

A New World for Other Worlds

Before the pandemic, Ron Connell’s Other Worlds Games and Comics had grown every year since he took over 13 years ago and was starting to feel cramped in the storefront next door to Basics Market. Now, at what should be his busiest season, business is down to 60 percent of normal and operating hours are limited to just three days a week.

Summer is bigger even than the December holidays at the game and comics shop, with a bustling schedule of summer gaming camps. Even though kids have not been to school since March, physical distancing precautions have prevented camps from meeting.

Darla the Dragon welcomes all.

Connell employs counselors who lead "Magic: The Gathering," and "Dungeons & Dragons" camps online, but even those virtual meetings are limited by logistical considerations and online Magic camps have not been as popular as in-person play. Online D&D camp is more popular with about 35 kids spread among weekly meetings of four to six participants.

After "Magic: the Gathering," comics are the next biggest seller at Other Worlds. Comics continue to draw kids and adults, with new movies and tv shows leading back to renewed interest in the printed versions. Once shows like “The Walking Dead,” “Watchmen,” “The Old Guard,” and “Stranger Things” are over, fans come to the shop where new story lines continue beyond the screen.

With school sports most likely off the table for a while, gaming could be a good outlet and a good way for kids to socialize, but Connell doesn’t think online table-top gaming will outlast the pandemic. He says, “Gathering in person, coming to the store and exploring the aisles, seeing the artwork is part of the fun of gaming. We want to get back to that.”

Over the years Connell’s focus has changed from running a business to earn a living to growing a community service for kids and adults. He enjoys seeing the excitement of a kid discovering comics. For first-timers, Connell makes sure the first comic is free.


--Valeurie Friedman


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