Apart from the odd dog-walker, Bath’s much-loved Walcot Street was deserted last week. But the area’s celebrated artisan shops were a hive of activity as the owners prepared to reopen to the public on Monday.
In the street’s tiny wool shop, A Yarn Story, the owner, Carmen Schmidt, was checking stock with a colleague. She had mixed feelings about the reopening as she won’t be able to offer people the same intimate, relaxed experience. “We are a very tactile business so we are excited to have people back in – to feel the yarn and see the colours,” she said as the street’s colourful bunting fluttered in the wind. “Before it didn’t matter if I had 10 people for two hours, but I’m now only allowed two people in the shop. We’ll have to ask people to make a choice if a line is forming outside.”
Schmidt, who has been running the shop for over six years, wondered if people will return to the street in the same numbers given the rise of online shopping. “I feel apprehensive,” she said. “Retail is always fickle. Will people come shopping? Will reopening actually be worthwhile? Is this the last time we are going to be doing this?”
The latest easing of lockdown, with non-essential shops allowed to reopen, comes as Bath records one of the lowest rates of Covid infection in the country. The last seven days have seen cases drop to under 12.9 per 100,000 in Bath and north-east Somerset.
At the other end of Walcot Street Tim Starks was busy installing fold-down tables outside his coffee shop. He decided not to offer takeaways before this week because Covid felt like too much of a threat. It seems very different now. “The reason we’ve been entirely closed and not doing takeaway is because personally it didn’t feel right,” said Starks. “It feels very different this time with the vaccination rates.”
Elsewhere in the west country city, there was growing optimism about the post-lockdown retail world. In Topping and Company Booksellers the manager, Saber Khan, and two other staff members were filling the maze-like shop’s already bulging floor-to-ceiling shelves with the latest releases. Khan has no fear of Amazon and is confident that people still enjoy whiling away an hour or two in a bookshop. “So many people have chosen not to go to Amazon [during lockdown],” he said. “We’re moving to a larger premises in November because we have faith in bookshops. People love physical books. People love browsing.”
Nearby, one of Bath’s most popular independent hair salons has been inundated with people desperate to have their lockdown hair trimmed. Shelly Carr, co-owner, plans to open 12 hours a day for seven days a week from Monday. “It is crazy at the moment. Everyone wants their hair done on the 12th,” she said. “There’s been a tsunami of calls and emails.”
The salon has 11 chairs but will be able to use just four at a time when it reopens. Carr said the extended opening hours allowed stylists at the salon to maintain social distancing and meet demand. “Opening on Monday will be a huge relief,” she added. “Once everything is up and running, it will be great.”
A short walk away, the finishing touches were being made to the refurbished Green Park Brasserie, ahead of reopening to sit-down customers. Alex Peters, who runs the family business with his father, said he can’t wait to see people enjoying themselves in what he hopes will be spring sunshine. “We are very optimistic. We expect to be very busy,” said Peters.
Although the brasserie, which was once a station, can accommodate 70 or so diners under an old glass porte-cochère and on the pavement, its takings will be vulnerable to cold and wet weather. Peters might have to make use of the government’s extended Covid relief scheme to furlough some of his 30 staff on a week-by-week basis.
“The weather is uncontrollable. But the furlough scheme has been extended through the year so that allows us to be flexible,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure it’s as viable as possible to be open.”