Dillon Basse / Special to the News-Leader
There is this kind of feeling many island residents have that going over the Thomas J. Shave Jr. Bridge for anything almost feels like a hassle. People off the island might say it’s because we’re all lazy and stuck on island time, but I believe it’s because we have everything we need here, especially when it comes to shopping.
Part of what makes the island so special and unique is the locally owned retail shops. For every holiday, birthday, anniversary, or for when I just want to buy myself something nice, the first place I go is downtown. One of the most loved shops in downtown Fernandina is Twisted Sisters.
Twisted Sisters is a ladies boutique owned by Kim Holwell, who brought her French market-style shop to Fernandina Beach around 12 years ago and has cemented herself and her shop as a local favorite.
The busiest time of the year for Holwell comes every spring as she prepares the shop for spring break and Amelia Island’s famous Shrimp Festival.
“You order heavy,” she said, “My spring orders are normally massive. My backroom is so full you can hardly move back there.”
All of these orders started coming in this year just as Holwell started hearing talk of a shutdown due to the coronavirus. Soon, bars and restaurants started closing and – sure enough – Holwell received the notice that her store was next. The most distressing news came just weeks later when she found out that the Shrimp Fest wouldn’t take place as well.
“Probably other than Florida-Georgia weekend, it’s the biggest weekend that I have for my business,” said Holwell, “It’s right there in spring. Everyone is looking for their summer wardrobe. People are buying beach houses and moving down so I sell the home decor. It was just devastating.”
Holwell was freaked out. With an overflow of spring orders and no place to sell them, she decided to try and take her business online. This was brand new to Holwell. She had done just fine without an online store, but the pandemic showed her that was no longer an option.
“I’m old school,” said Holwell, “If I were in my 20s or 30s, I probably would’ve gone online a long time ago. COVID taught me a lesson, though, and I realized I needed to change.”
Holwell had Facebook and Instagram pages but believes she wasn’t utilizing them the way she needed to be. Once her store had to close, she started using social media as often as possible.
“One day, we had our own live fashion show,” said Holwell. “Nobody was outside or on the street, so the girls would come in and we’d turn on the lights. Then we’d throw them up on Facebook and just sold from that.”
When Twisted Sisters was finally allowed to reopen, they started with a soft opening. They had limited hours, only took credit cards or checks, enforced social distancing, and required everyone who entered to wear a mask. Holwell bought every kind of Clorox wipe she could find or “hoard,” as she said, and started wiping down everything they possibly could in the store.
“The biggest thing I heard from customers was ‘thank you for opening back up’ and ‘thank you for doing it responsibly,’” Holwell said.
One of the biggest questions the storeowner had to answer was how she was going to regulate dressing rooms. One of the main reasons people go out to shop for clothes rather than order online is to physically try on the outfit before purchasing it. Holwell is now letting people try on clothes. Once a customer is finished using the dressing room, Holwell wipes down the entire room, top to bottom.
She is not letting anyone return clothing because once it leaves the store, she has no control over who or what the clothes touch.
“We can’t do business today like we did it yesterday,” she said. “I don’t believe we even know what the new normal is going to look like yet.”
Howell’s advice for other small businesses and retail shops is to be flexible and to not be naive. She emphasized how essential it is to get online even if you aren’t young or technically savvy.
Lastly, Holwell explained why buying from small businesses is so important and why, especially in Fernandina Beach, people should support them.
“We pay the taxes that go back into the city,” she said, “What people need to think about is ‘what if – as isolated as I felt during COVID – what if I came back out from COVID and all these businesses weren’t here?’”
It’s a scary thought, but she’s right. The small businesses of this town are owned by people who live here. I was able to talk to Holwell because her daughter is best friends and goes to school with my younger sister. These people truly want what’s best for the community, and without them, our island just wouldn’t be the same.
Editor’s note: Dillon Basse grew up on Amelia Island and recently graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in communications.