DILLON BASSE / For the News-Leader
The Monkey Barrel has been providing Amelia Island with children’s clothing and toys for 24 years now. Bonnie Southwick was a loyal customer for years. Any special occasions, holidays, or her children’s birthdays were treated with gifts from the Monkey Barrel. Southwick no longer shops at the Monkey Barrel because four years ago she bought the entire store.
“The kids had just graduated high school so, you know, ‘empty nest,’” said Southwick. “I was just looking for a new beginning.”
When Southwick bought the store, it was located near the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort. This past January, she packed up the shop and moved right next to Harris Teeter. She was excited for the new year and the new location, but like everyone else, she had no idea what was on the horizon. However, Southwick saw a silver lining and says she felt as though the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic was almost a blessing in disguise for her.
“It really allowed for us to have some time to pack up the old store and move into this one,” she said. “Our contractor was amazing and had the place finished by the beginning of May, right around when the shutdown ended.”
While the timing was better for Southwick than most, there is never actually a good time for a pandemic. It was early February when Southwick first started hearing news about COVID-19. At that time, she was traveling a lot for work to places like Orlando, Atlanta, and even New York City. From what Southwick could tell, the virus at the time didn’t seem like too much of a threat. When she went to NYC for the toy fair, it was a very different environment from the one that would set in soon after.
“No one was wearing masks,” Southwick said. “It was interesting to see that even the representatives from China at the fair weren’t wearing them. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.”
Needless to say, it was a big surprise to Southwick when only a few weeks later the entire country started to shut down. Unaware of what to do at first, Southwick kept her store open but remained cautious, only allowing up to 10 people in the store at a time. Finally, the Monkey Barrel was forced to shut down in April when Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order shuttering much of the state. Southwick knew her next move was to get online.
“Technology saved us,” she said, “We used Instagram, Facebook, and our online store for sales, and because of that, we were able to get through the months of March and April.”
Southwick made sure that all of her employees felt safe and comfortable. She assured them that anyone who wasn’t comfortable working would not lose their jobs once the shutdown was over. For the employees that did feel comfortable working, Southwick would have them come into the store to help her personally package each online order before taking them to the post office.
Since her reopening in early May, Southwick has been following a strict sanitation protocol. Employees have to come in 15 minutes early every day. Before the store opens and throughout the day, they wipe countertops, bathrooms, door handles, and any other surface where the virus could spread. She even has disposable masks available at the front door for anyone who might have forgotten their mask at home.
“People are still getting used to taking their masks with them everywhere they go,” says Southwick. “So we are more than happy to give people one if they have been forgetful.”
Masks have become similar to wallets and phones in a world where you can’t leave the house without them. Southwick believes one day we will get back to not wearing masks, but that there will definitely be a new normal.
“I think people are doing a lot of thinking these days,” she said, “The cleanliness measures we have, I believe, will stay in place because we’re now always going to be thinking about it.”
Many small businesses feel a lot of pressure to reopen because they financially couldn’t afford to remain closed, but Southwick advises them to make sure they are comfortable before opening.
“If you’re on the verge of deciding to open up, “she said, “Make sure you have your cleanliness protocol in place, make sure you’ve got plenty of masks, make sure your comfortable being open, maybe alter your hours if necessary, and also be prepared for business to be slow.
“I don’t want to sound like a recording, but when you support a small business, you are putting food on that person’s table. We are your friends, we are your neighbors, and we are there for you.”
Editor’s note: Dillon Basse grew up on Amelia Island and has now graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in communications.