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For Owners of Century-Old Businesses, Shutting Down Brings a Special Pain

Harrell’s Department Store has stood sentry over Wright Street in Burgaw, N.C., for the past 117 years. It has served the town’s 4,000 residents with everything they’ve needed, like baby shoes and horse collars in the original wooden building, or church hats and appliances in the two-story red brick building constructed in 1924.

Harrell’s has been the backdrop to several famous late-1990s and early-2000s movies, including “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” It has survived changing fashions — it once sold long johns — world wars, the Great Depression and the 2008 financial crisis, and floods.

But it couldn’t survive the coronavirus. Vernon Harrell, the company’s fourth-generation owner, recently announced he was closing the business his great-grandfather started.

“It’s been very difficult,” said Mr. Harrell, 65, who started working in the store when he was 13. “I did not want to be the one who brought it to an end.”

The pandemic has devastated many of the country’s small-business owners; nearly a quarter of companies closed either temporarily or permanently in March and April, according to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. But for firms that have been part of their communities for 100 years or more, there’s more at stake than livelihood — there’s legacy and, in some cases, generations of family ties.

Since March, the pandemic has claimed at least a half-dozen businesses in or near the century club. For example, the Boston Hotel Buckminster, which opened in 1897, closed its doors; Ritz Barbecue, which opened in a small shed in Allentown, Pa., in 1927, served its last ribs and ice cream last month; Hickory Grove Greenhouses, just north of Allentown, decided to close after 103 years; and Michigan Maple Block Company, a wood products company in northern Michigan, is shuttering its manufacturing plant and laying off 56 workers after 139 years.

Credit…Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

“These firms can die a good death or a bad death; nothing lasts forever,” said Dennis Jaffe, a sociologist who works with family companies and recently published the book “Borrowed From Your Grandchildren: The Evolution of 100-Year Family Enterprises.” “It’s sad and there is grieving, but there is also a legacy.”

Mr. Harrell was struggling to keep the department store going even before the coronavirus hit. Changing consumer tastes and competition from big-box stores such as Home Depot were cutting into his revenue. He had already given up selling flooring materials and floor coverings — something Harrell’s had sold from the beginning — because he couldn’t be competitive. But he was also trying to modernize: Mr. Harrell started a website and put the store on social media, and he considered adding a bar to the store to give customers another reason to shop.

“If Covid hadn’t hit, I would have kept going even though I would have struggled,” Mr. Harrell said. “It was the loss of the income for the two months that really just crippled me.”

Instead, he’s trying to give his family’s business a good death — especially because he never anticipated being the one in charge. Mr. Harrell left the family business after college to go into the film industry, which was booming in nearby Wilmington in the 1990s thanks to state and local tax breaks. While Mr. Harrell went off to work as a prop master, his younger brother, Herbert, took over both the department store and the family’s funeral business. (Yes, a funeral home. Harrell’s originally sold coffins in its furniture department, and the brothers’ grandfather developed that into a second business in 1913.)

“My dad had two more sons, so he said, ‘It’s all or nothing; you take both businesses or nothing,’” Mr. Harrell said. “I didn’t want to run the funeral home, so I left.”


Credit…Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

Credit…Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

When the film industry began drying up, Mr. Harrell and his family moved back to Burgaw. His father, Charles Meacham Harrell Sr., and brother offered him a job in the store doing appliance repair, paperwork, sales and whatever else needed doing. That was his life, with the occasional film production, until his father died in 2016. At that time, the two brothers split the businesses; Mr. Harrell took over the department store while his brother took the funeral home, which will remain open.

Today, Mr. Harrell spends his days thinking about the future. He hopes to find a way to bring new life to the brick storefront. He’d like to see a vibrant entertainment venue with a bar and small boutiques renting space. Some of the nearby storefronts have been redeveloped, and Mr. Harrell, who is on the town council, like his father and grandfather before him, can feel that Burgaw is at a crucial moment.

“I want to put something in that will keep the name on the window,” Mr. Harrell said.

One challenge facing family businesses is that there often isn’t anyone who wants to take over — especially during an economic downturn. Mr. Harrell’s adult sons live six hours away in Asheville, N.C., and aren’t interested in reimagining retail for a post-Covid world. Neither are his nieces and nephews.


Credit…Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

“There isn’t the next generation with the passion to take the business through a crisis,” said Jennifer Pendergast, executive director of the Center for Family Enterprises at Northwestern University. “This is going to be hard for a while. Is there someone who wants to take that on?”

For business owners trying to chart the future — whether they’re the fifth generation or the second — Dr. Pendergast recommends that they find someone who can be their “truth teller,” who will look at the numbers and the emotions of continuing. If the math doesn’t work and the business isn’t viable, there’s no point in keeping it alive. But if it is, then she encourages owners to ask themselves if the work is still meaningful to the family.

“Obligation cannot be the reason to continue,” she said. “Long term, that is not sustainable.”

Amy Hyman feels that obligation daily as she tries to guide Lake Steam Baths in Denver into its 94th year in business.

Like Mr. Harrell, she never expected to find herself at the helm of a legacy business. She was happy with her job tending the bar where she met her husband, Hannon. The Russian and Turkish bathhouse was the domain of her mother-in-law, Gertie.

“She was 5-foot-nothing,” Ms. Hyman said. “This little Jewish lady running around telling everyone what to do. That’s my fondest memory of this place — not ever knowing that I would be her someday, in a sense.”

When Gertie died in 2006, Hannon took over — with some input from Ms. Hyman. Women had never been allowed in the baths. But Ms. Hyman persuaded Hannon to let her test a ladies’ night one Sunday a month so that women could enjoy the hot saunas and whirlpools, and get a massage.

She continued bartending and raising her daughter and son while Hannon ran the business. But when he died in 2015, at age 59, Ms. Hyman found herself in charge because no other family members were available.

“Never did I ever believe that I would be running the business by myself,” Ms. Hyman said. “My two kids were 14 and 10 when Hannon passed, and every year I kept saying, ‘I’m going to sell this place and live life.’ But I can’t. The community is amazing.”

She doubled down on the business that Hannon’s grandparents opened in 1927. She paid off the $400,000 mortgage on the 11,000-square-foot building and parking lot, and began upgrading, spending more than $40,000 on a new boiler, sauna oven and steam machine. She also added more ladies’ nights and expanded the food menu.

The results started showing last year: Ms. Hyman said she turned a profit and was on track for 2020 to be her best year. She was preparing to invest in another sauna oven and thinking about how to grow. She employed nine people and had expanded to 36 massage therapists to meet demand.

But the investments also taxed her cash reserves and left her vulnerable when Colorado’s governor, Jared Polis, closed businesses in late March to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Her revenue went to zero, and she had to lay off her staff.

“I called my parents and had a hissy fit, and my dad says, ‘OK, dust yourself off and figure it out,’” Ms. Hyman said.

So that’s what she is trying to do. Ms. Hyman received a Small Business Administration loan through its Paycheck Protection Program and brought back seven employees and eight therapists to help as the state allowed more services. She introduced a $10 facility charge and is booking private massages and private parties for the baths. She also created a GoFundMe campaign.

But she’s just not sure the math will ever work.

Therapists collect most of the massage earnings, so her cut and the facility fee bring in only about $150 per day. She is booking four to six private groups per day for the baths, but that doesn’t cover the overhead. She needs at least 25 percent capacity to survive — and under Denver’s reopening plan, that may not happen until the fall.

“I just keep teetering constantly and just fighting myself: Keep the business, don’t keep the business,” Ms. Hyman said. “If I need to let it go, I know the Lake Steam community will forgive me and understand.”