One Juneau shop owner is scaling back a dream because of COVID-19

Dean Graber opened a second downtown location last summer. This summer, he was considering a year-round lease in a building but had to forego those plans. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

The COVID-19 virus is drastically altering the social landscape we live in, and it’s also forcing Alaskans to reconsider their plans for the future.

Juneau typically sees more than a million cruise ship passengers a year. But with cancellations and travel restrictions stretching well into the summer, those numbers are now out of reach.

One business — now one of many — is making the tough decision to scale back their dream.

Entering Dean Graber’s wood shop, you’d think he’s moving in or moving out. There are boxes everywhere. An unplugged point of sale system shares a table with handmade sushi boards and wooden clocks.

“Cheese boards. I have a couple hundred of those right now,” Graber said. “I’ll probably need more.” He catches himself, adding, “I would have needed more.”

In anticipation of the summer, Graber created the cutting boards for his business, Rainforest Custom. Some of them are stacked around this workspace, not even oiled yet.

He mostly makes his wood pieces for custom orders. But he said his family had big dreams for a downtown retail space this summer, and it was guaranteed to get a lot of foot traffic from cruise ship passengers.

“I wanted it to be a place that people remembered when they came back to Juneau,” Graber said. “I wanted it to be a place the people of Juneau would like to come.”

Graber was planning on opening this second space year-round. He’d taken out a loan to help support the business.

He was about to sign a lease on a new building. Then, news of the COVID-19 virus struck.

“This last two weeks, my wife and I have gone back and forth, crunching numbers, looking at spreadsheets, cash flow,” Graber said. “And looking at the news and daily, it was just, ‘Yes let’s do it. No let’s not. Yes let’s do it.'”

Dean Graber had been working for many months on the items he’d sell at his downtown location. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Last week, several cruise lines that come to Juneau announced a suspension of cruises until May. Just days before that, Graber and his wife decided not to sign the lease. Fallout has continued to escalate for the visitor industry. Southeast Alaska likely likely won’t see a cruise ship until well into the summer — if that.

On Wednesday, a coronavirus relief package passed a major hurdle in Congress. It could provide paid sick leave, enhanced unemployment benefits and free coronavirus testing.

And billions more dollars could be on the way to help small businesses. But if that relief comes in the form of secured loans, Graber said that won’t be of much help.

“I don’t need a zero or no-interest loan, because I’ve already got debt to pay,” Graber said. “I don’t need any more debt. I don’t want any more debt.”

In an attempt to recover, Graber is selling some of the inventory of wood items flooding his shop for half off. He’ll still make custom pieces.

But it’s not just his business plans that are changing rapidly. He wonders what the future will look like for his family, with schools closed and retirement facilities on lockdown.

“I hope my son graduates — is able to graduate, otherwise. I hope my mother makes it OK. My daughter is coming from college in New York City. She’s being sent home,” he said.

As news of the pandemic unfolds, Graber said he’s taking it one day at a time. He hopes the United States pulls through quickly. He thinks it will. He says people are resilient.

 

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