Owners and managers of businesses in downtown Montrose feel that they have weathered the pandemic well and are ready to move forward by providing more products and services to consumers in the area.
Story and photos by Rick Hiduk
(Originally published in the Susquehanna County Independent)
The pace of downtown Montrose was altered for more than a year by the COVID pandemic, despite many businesses doing everything they could to continue to provide products and services for residents.
As regular patrons and visitors to the area return to shops, they are finding that the face of the business community has changed a bit, including the addition of some new stores. Established store owners are reflecting on their modified business models, while new shop keepers in the downtown area share why they chose to open during a recovering economy.
Among the businesses that found ways to navigate the restrictions and guidelines of the pandemic-related shutdowns were Chocolates by Leopold, Little Leaf Natural Products, and From the Heart. The owners of each settled into Montrose because they were enamored by its history and architecture, as well as the small town charm of its people. While, in some ways, they found the near lockdown to be limiting, there were successes to be found while meeting the challenges.
“The pandemic still affects the business,” Chocolates by Leopold owner Michelle DePue, suggested. “Shoppers have not yet completely returned to their former habits.” Choclatier Leopold Schreiber – the name behind the business – was encouraged by the Montrose Business Association to move to Montrose from Binghamton, NY, in 1996, with his fourth-generation German recipes. “Our customers have stayed loyal to their favorite chocolates, and they are starting to come out more frequently,” DePue added.
“When the pandemic hit, I immediately started to do curbside pickup, delivering locally as needed, and shipping orders,” said From the Heart owner Twyla Puterbaugh (below), who credited Facebook for keeping her patrons in tune with her 15-year-old business. “I would post daily, and my customers really stepped up to support me, even while my storefront was closed for two months.” She figured out how to invoice and receive payments through PayPal and started selling masks.
“That really helped me to thrive. I sold over 4,000 masks last year, which gave me the income to put back into my business and grow my inventory.” The regular product line includes carefully curated gifts, jewelry, handbags, scarves, cards, gourmet foods, candles, soaps, and children’s gifts. Looking back, Puterbaugh maintains that 2020 was her most profitable year ever. “One positive thing the pandemic did was to show people how important shopping local is to the community.”
Next door, Kidz Consignment owner Jennifer Strickland echoed Puterbaugh’s sentiments. “The support from my customers when I was closed and doing curb pickup only was amazing,” Strickland remarked. “It took a lot of time to take pictures or videos of what they were looking for, but everybody was very patient.”
Little Leaf owner Robin Wiseman purchased her business in 2011 from Teri Shea, who had opened it about 16 years prior. Wiseman had previously worked at a health food store in New Jersey and hoped Montrose-area residents would share her passion for organic foods, safe cleaning products, and nutritional supplements, and homeopathic remedies.
They did, and their desire for such wares were only enhanced by the public health crisis. When the pandemic shutdowns happened in April 2020, Wiseman took orders by phone and sold at curbside through June.
“We were insanely busy,” she recalled. “We’d get deliveries of organic produce on Thursdays, and it was gone by Saturday.” Things did slow down by late summer, she noted, but Wiseman isn’t complaining. “People started planting their own gardens, which I’m happy about.”
As each of these businesses work to build back their hours of operation, they are encouraged by what they feel as a new vibe in the downtown area.
“We are starting to see more social traffic in Montrose – people out for pleasure and not just necessity,” DePue remarked. “As that traffic increases, we will most likely start to increase the hours that the store is open to accommodate our customers.”
“I am optimistic that we will continue to grow and hopefully get back to full storefronts,” Puterbaugh related. “With a few new places opening recently, there is a great energy in the town.”
Strickland said, “I am so happy we are getting more businesses downtown. I know I am always telling my customers about the other shops that are nearby to help support our small businesses.”
One of those new businesses had been open for just 10 days when a fire in an apartment above Mr. Zim Zim’s Vapor & CBD Shop resulted in significant smoke and water damage to the first floor as well. Zim Zim’s is one of two businesses in Montrose that expanded from successful operations in Tunkhannock. “We’re very old fashioned people, and we love historic towns,” said Zim Zim’s co-owner Mike Cahill. “Our business in Tunkhannock is located in a building that was one of the town’s first banks, built in 1844. Choosing Montrose for our second location just made sense.”
After seven years of increasing the knowledge and experience to operate in the vaping and CBD industries, Cahill (above) and his partners were happy to bring that knowledge and experience to Montrose. “Our customers don’t just come to us for our large selection of products, but also for our professionalism and expertise,” he remarked.
“We were looking to expand with our vendors, and friends suggested Montrose would be a perfect area to add Sunny Treasures,” said shop owner Maren Visavati. Sunny Treasures Vendor Collection in Tunkhannock recently marked its first anniversary of selling handmade wooden flags, custom-made dolls, re-purposed furniture, vinyl records and other gifts items that appeal to various age groups. “We have done so well, we figured, ‘Why not try to share what our vendors have to offer in Montrose?’ We are glad we did. I think it was perfect timing.”
The opening of Robilotti’s Fine Jewelers was actually years in the making, but the start-up of owner Paul Robilotti’s sub-business, Montrose Precious Metals, was a direct result of the pandemic. At a time when so many people were out of work, Robilotti (below) contemplated ways that he might be able to help.
“My thought was that I might be able to put money into the hands of folks who really needed the cash to get over the next hump,” he explained. “I invested my savings into an account for the purpose and prayed for this to work. Although this component of my business is not so profitable, it brought people in to learn more about what I can offer in other services.”
For 45 years, Robilotti honed his skills designing and manufacturing fine jewelry for men and women. “No one knew there was a jeweler in town primarily because I have wholesaled all of my career,” he stated. “Because there are no other jewelry stores in town, it only made sense to open one. I didn’t know if it was the right time to open a business.” In addition to his own designs, he does custom orders and makes repairs.
Robilotti is among those interviewed for this article whose general feeling is that the business climate in downtown Montrose is recovering nicely from the pandemic. But he was also among several participants who suggested that there is plenty of room for improvement.
“Rather than offering incentives to big businesses and giving away tax revenue, why not support mom and pop operations? After all, we are the backbone and largest employer,” Robilotti remarked. He’d like to open a gallery to display his work and that of others and is in favor of eliminating water truck traffic in the borough on Saturdays.
“The town needs more team work as far as events and consistency,” Visavati recommended. “We small businesses stick together, and I trust that Montrose can be that small town you can plan a day trip to and visit again.”
“We’ve always said that ‘in today’s world, owning a physical retail store doesn’t mean you sell products – it means you sell customer service,’ and online shopping can’t provide customers with the same level of customer service that in-store shopping can,” said Cahill. “The businesses we’ve visited in Montrose seem to understand this very well also. We certainly hope that the customers we draw to Montrose will discover and/or frequent the many other great businesses in what is a very charming downtown area.”
Cahill hopes to have Zim Zim’s open in a limited capacity within two to four weeks. The full product line will be available, he explained, but the entire showroom floor will not likely be ready. “We will be open for Third Friday in some capacity,” he remarked. “That’s a certainty.” Hours at the 499 South Main Street shop will be Tuesday through Saturday, 11 am to 6 pm.
Robilotti’s Fine Jewelers, 212 Church Street, is open Tuesday from 10 to 5 and Thursday from 10 to 6.
Sunny Treasures, 228 Church Street, is open Monday to Saturday from 10 to 5, Sundays 10 to 2, and 10 to 8 on Third Fridays.
From the Heart, 14 Public Avenue, is open Tuesday to Thursday from 10 to 5, Friday 10 to 4, and Saturday 10 to 3.
Little Leaf Natural Products, 501 South Main Street, is open Monday from 10 to 3; Tuesday to Friday 10 to 5, and Saturday 10 to 3.
Chocolates by Leopold, 170 Church Street, is open Monday to Saturday from 11 to 5.
Kidz Consignment, 14 Public Avenue, is open Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 to 5 and Thursday through Saturday from 10 to 3.
Sunny’s Treasures store clerk Briana Visavati
Chocolates by Leopold store clerk Danielle Dubofsky
Little Leaf Natural Products owner Robin Wiseman (left) and store clerk Liz Kearney