How a small art gallery in Columbus GA survived the COVID pandemic

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Amy Cook quietly walks the light and airy Gallery of the two sisters.

Framed artwork line the walls, a floral armchair sits near the front door, and white tables are spaced throughout the store containing jewelry, coffee mugs, and other items.

A wall of sample frames in all colors and styles accentuates the back of the store near the cash register, where owner Frances Malone, in an orange and white striped apron, politely apologizes for the help Cook.

Cook is here to pick up a diploma frame for his daughter who just graduated from college. Malone completed some rush work on the frame, making sure Cook had it in time for his trip to North Carolina to visit his daughter.

When choosing where to go for the project, Cook was happy to choose a local company. Shopping in public is much more enjoyable now than it was last year, she said, at the height of social distancing protocols. But she is worried about the implications of the spread of the Delta variant.

“I feel like we’ve all gotten a little lax,” Cook said. “But I understand he’s coming back in force. So I think now I need to take a step back and reconsider what I’m doing even though I’m fully vaccinated.

The COVID-19 pandemic created challenges that businesses in Columbus had to overcome, and between issues with vendors and the implementation of social distancing protocols, Two Sisters Gallery was no different.

Malone opened the downtown store with her sister Lucile Flournoy in 1997. The gallery specializes in bespoke framing, original fine art and gift items. Malone said coaching was the bulk of their business, and this specialty was what helped the store survive during the COVID-19 recession.

In the spring of 2020, it quickly became apparent that people weren’t going out to shop, let alone during the shutdown, Malone said. To make matters worse, the gallery’s vendors, many of which are located in other states, were also having issues due to local and state closures in their areas.

“One of the major suppliers closed its New York warehouse, which prevented any molding from New York to its Atlanta warehouse,” said Malone. “He left the Atlanta warehouse as the only one open nationwide for all of their customers.”

The Atlanta warehouse was working harder and running out of materials faster, she said. This meant that the gallery had to order whatever it felt it needed for the jobs it had on hand, before it closed as well.

During the closure, staff came to work, but the gallery remained closed to customers.

“It didn’t matter,” Malone said. “Because no one was going anywhere.”

When the store reopened in May for appointment-only services, she said a number of her customers had coaching they wanted to do because they were fed up with what was on. the walls of the house.

Customers brought old photographs, paintings with frames they hated, or things they had been meaning to frame for some time, Malone said. The dates helped the gallery avoid spreading COVID-19 as people didn’t have to wait in the small space.

The gallery has finally reopened with limited hours. They were flexible with their clients, meeting them in the parking lot to get the artwork and discuss services if they weren’t comfortable going into a business.

Malone said they keep the store clean and demand masks.

“I still don’t like having a bunch of people waiting here,” she said. “But that doesn’t happen often, so we’re not that worried about it. We don’t have a very busy and crowded space.

Although they no longer had foot traffic or customers browsing the artwork, jewelry, and tokens around the store, there was still a clear demand for their services.

Malone’s company was able to secure a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program in the first round. She thanks her accountant for securing her because they were quickly able to gather the necessary elements to apply for the loan.

The money was used to pay a part-time employee during the pandemic, which was supplemented by unemployment funds.

The gallery recently relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, but the spread of the Delta variant has raised the possibility of implementing a mask policy, Malone said.

The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has updated their guidelines recommending that fully vaccinated people in areas with high community transmission should resume wearing masks in indoor public spaces.

“We hope that the unvaccinated people will wear masks,” said Malone. “I think if they want all businesses to fully open up – if they want everything to go back to normal – it can’t be done while we still have people going to the hospital.”

Brittany McGee is a member of the Report for America body covering local recovery from COVID-19. She is originally from Arkansas and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This report is financially supported by Report for America / GroundTruth Project and the Local News and Information Fund of the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley. The Ledger-Enquirer retains full editorial control of the work.


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