From Spanish Flu to COVID-19: How century-old businesses are coping with change

They’ve survived the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, both world wars and the Great Recession. After staying in business for more than a century, these shops have stood the test of time. Now, COVID-19 is throwing a whole new set of challenges their way.

Eby’s Barber Shop, est. 1894

Nine years after opening, Hiram Eby moved his barber shop to Goderich St. in Port Elgin, Ont. It was 1903. (Submitted photo)

In 1916, a loyal Eby’s Barber Shop customer stopped in for a haircut before heading to France to serve in the First World War.

The young soldier left his umbrella behind, saying he’d be back to claim it after the war. It remained in the Port Elgin, Ont. shop for a century, long after word travelled home that he’d been wounded in France, then hit directly by a shell.

This is the history Blair Eby walks into every day in his family’s barbershop, founded by his great-grandfather in 1894.

“For 125 years, it’s been a walk-in business,” he said. “That’s all going to change.”

Eby’s Barber Shop in Port Elgin, circa early 1900s. (Submitted photo)

Right now, the non-essential service is closed. When provincial restrictions are lifted, Eby said they’ll move to appointment-only, with one customer inside the shop at a time.

“It’s a little frightening because we have a daughter with a heart condition, she’s immunocompromised,” he said.

With the business closed down since mid-March, Eby said he and his wife are dipping into their savings.

“Our rainy day slush funds have been diminished; any foreseeable holidays are kyboshed,” he said.

It’s not stories about the Great Depression or the Spanish Flu that Eby remembers hearing about while growing up. It was the 70s.

“The younger generation weren’t getting their hair cut,” he said.

“The 70s were very tough, long hair was in style,” he said, adding that if it wasn’t for a nearby power plant, the barbershop would have gone out of business.

The Eby family has owned Eby’s Barber Shop for more than a century. From left to right: Barrie Eby, his brother Basil and son Blair. They’re helping an unknown customer (seated) in this 2006 photo. (Submitted photo)

Eby said they’ve always adjusted to their client base. His grandfather, father and uncle put in long hours, often staying open for 13 hours on Saturdays when farmers came in for shopping, socializing, and a haircut.

That’s what Eby misses most: the social aspect of cutting men’s hair every day.

“You have to adapt; you just have to go with the flow until things get close to normal,” he said.

“If we ever do get back to normal.”

Culbert’s Bakery, est. 1877

Culbert’s Bakery opened in 1877 near Goderich’s town square. (Submitted photo )

Darin Culbert starts work at 2 a.m., just like his father and grandfather before him.

The third-generation owner of Culbert’s Bakery near the square in Goderich, Ont. spent 25 years working alongside both of them. Still, that didn’t prepare him for a global pandemic.

“I’m flying by the seat of my pants,” he said. “Sales are way down.” 

Customers are still swinging by for the staples, such as bread and buns, but Culbert can’t count on sales from big, family get-togethers. The bakery took a hit during Easter weekend, and Culbert expects the same for Mother’s Day and Victoria Day long weekend.

Culbert Bakery’s original oven has been running for more than 140 years. Third-generation owner Darin Culbert said it was out of operation for just one year, following the 2011 Goderich tornado. (Submitted photo)

He said he’s made a few changes to adapt, such as putting off hiring summer help. He’s also closing the doors 90 minutes earlier every day because locals aren’t stopping by the bakery after work.

Culbert says they’ve toughed out worse times in the shop’s 143-year history. During the Second World War, his grandfather was unable to secure sugar and other ingredients during a shortage. As the story goes, he joined the supply chain by providing baked goods, such as bread and pies, to nearby military bases.

“He could supply his own bakery that way,” he said.

Culbert himself has weathered some challenges.

“When the tornado hit, we were pretty well shut down for a year,” he said, recalling the 2011 twister that gutted Goderich’s downtown core.

He said that hurdle was more difficult than coping with COVID-19.

“We basically started with a shell and had to redo everything, in and out.”

When the shop reopened, customers lined the street at 7 a.m. to set foot inside again.

“The tornado did me more good than harm. I was busier than ever after the tornado, and it continued from there.”

As for post-COVID, Culbert doesn’t know what to expect. It will take a while to build up business again, and he wonders how buying habits may change.

For now, he’s embracing the increased demand for one particular treat: donuts in boxes of six. Culbert suspects they’re for porch-drop-offs, as people try to support neighbours and friends while still physical distancing.

“I’m assuming they’re just dropping them off as a goodwill gesture,” he said.

Jennings Furniture & Design, est. 1885

During the Great Depression, half of Jenning’s Furniture’s main floor was rented out to another business to make ends meet. (Submitted photo )

“Nothing will ever take the place of a traditional, in-store experience. That can never be replaced,” said Jennings Furniture & Design owner Renee Carpenter.

Eleven years ago, she took over the St. Thomas, Ont. store from its fourth-generation family owners. Now, she’s faced with bringing the business online.

The owner has been doing “FaceTime shopping,” where she guides customers through the three-story shop and shows them samples. Jennings Furniture had a website before COVID-19 hit, but Carpenter says she’s “working ’round the clock right now, trying to populate it.”

Owner Renee Carpenter said she’s busier than ever, trying to covert the 135-year old furniture store for online shopping. (Submitted photo)

Carpenter sees the limitations of online shopping for something as tactile as furniture.

“There’s no way someone’s going to buy a recliner online. They need to sit in it,” she said, hoping for pent-up demand when her doors reopen.

“People are dreaming,” she said, adding that she’s sold bedroom sets to customers who “want to be ahead of the queue” when manufacturers get back to work.

For now, she’s “trying to keep things afloat” without help. Carpenter temporarily laid off a staff of three to four people.

“I have no team, no staff, no receivers, no deliverers,” she said.

Her job now is answering phones, following up with inquiries and arranging curbside pick-up.

“I’m attempting to wear all the hats, and not all of them fit so well.”

Goodwin and Jennings was the original store name in 1885, then the partnership split and it was Jennings Furniture for more than 100 years. (Submitted photo)

The store’s long history is something that keeps her going.

“It can’t be worse than the world wars. It can’t be worse than the Great Depression,” she said.

During the Great Depression, the owners halved the main floor of the business and rented it out to make ends meet. Carpenter said it may have been a hardware store and ice cream parlour at different points, based on memories shared by long-time residents.

“If they can withstand it, so can we. We have so many ways to do business they didn’t have then,” she said.

“I know it’s been there 135 years and it’s going to be there when the dust settles.”

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