Dreams meet COVID-19 pandemic realities for tea shop and bookstore

Local News

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Three years of planning went into making Austen & Company a reality, a tea shop and bookstore on South High Street.

But the business launched this year into a pandemic — the worst business climate since the Great Recession. It’s taken the determination of owner Kay Johnson and her family, plus personal resources, to open and stay open.

“It took probably a year and a half of seeing what was out there, and how I could put my own spin on it,” Kay recalled. “I thought I would save, and that’s how I would do it, being very naïve as to the cost of what things are.”

Kay reached out to the Small Business Association, and was also helped by the Economic and Community Development Institute on Old Leonard Avenue with information on grants and loans, in the business opening process.

Gradually, she saw her dream of the teashop and bookstore take shape in reality. As she planned her business, Kay envisaged open mic nights, poetry slams, book clubs, people doing homework, and artist exhibitions.

But the slow paces of the City of Columbus and the Liquor Control Board, coupled with the shutdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic, depleted any financial cushion she might have had.

“There have been numerous issues with the city trying to get open, and it kept pushing it back, and pushing it back. Financially it was a huge burden. And then, as we were thinking we were going to open, the pandemic hit.

“Everything was put aside again. We are still waiting on our liquor license. We had the inspection, and have been approved, and have yet to receive it in the mail. It’s been a month. I’m not sure what the issue is. I’d think anybody could type it up, put a stamp on it, and stick it in the mail. But that’s now cost me a whole stream of revenue that I could have been using to increase my sales.”

The pandemic, plus the frustrations with the city and the liquor board, means that Kay depleted the funding that she had received. Planned-on revenue streams never materialized. Items she wanted to buy to enhance her business, had to be put on hold.

“It’s difficult to open when you have to watch every penny that goes out, so I have to wait for money to come in to do things that I really would have liked to have done,” Kay said.

Kay loves her customers, and loves being in this Southside neighborhood. She hopes that the book clubs will remember her when the pandemic is over, and that customers will want to socialize with their friends again, in real life.

“We are taking it a day at a time right now. Hopefully the sales pick up. I have super customers and we get new people in every day. We need to have more sales.

“People come in and they are very enthusiastic. At least once a day, a customer will say, ‘I’m so glad you’re here.’ I think we have the best neighborhood, the best customers. That’s one of the reasons I kept going. I didn’t want to disappoint the neighborhood.”

You can find Austen and Company, a family-run business, at 1530 South High Street, in Merion Village.

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