“You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.” —Edith Head
Owning a small business is tough. Navigating a global pandemic as a small business? Very tough.
Wheeling has seen it’s fair share of difficult times. Record-breaking floods, population decline, economic stagnation and all the while many of our businesses have persevered. However, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have hit Wheeling hard and perhaps no group has been harder hit than those working in the arts.
I recently sat with Gael Fincham, owner of Stages Costume shop in downtown Wheeling, and she described her fight to stay open.
“I’m struggling my hardest to keep this place going with no money – and when I say no money I mean noooooo money,” Gael says. “Small businesses are tough, I don’t care what you’re doing. But, I am doing this because it’s what I’ve always loved to do.”
In 1990, Fincham and her husband Dan, opened Stages in downtown Wheeling using the leftover inventory from Whickams, a local rental shop closing its doors, to start their dream business.
“I’ve always loved costumes. In 8th grade, I did costumes for the ballet because I loved it so much and wanted to help. I don’t act very well, I don’t play an instrument, I don’t have a voice, but damn I can make a costume.” Gael laughs.
Gael is absolutely right! She can make a hell of a costume.
Throughout Stages’ long history, they have costumed hundreds of plays, performances, films, historic portrayals and even actors for film and television.
Needless to say, they are an institution for arts and culture statewide.
Today, they find the impact of the pandemic having all but devastated their industry.
“In March, when COVID-19 first hit, we lost both the spring theater season and Easter all in one day. They were just gone with no time to prepare. All of the business in the pipeline was gone too – we were dead.”
According to the Brookings Institute, during COVID-19, they estimate overall losses nearing “2.7 million jobs and more than $150 billion in sales of goods and services for creative industries nationwide”
Locally, many folks in the arts have taken unique steps to adapt to this new, isolated world. The Wheeling Symphony Orchestra has shifted to streaming their performances, and the Oglebay Institute has limited class sizes and requires PPE for all. Fincham, however, is still finding it difficult to adapt her business model, which is often predicated on large gatherings, to the unpredictable nature of the virus – understandably so.
“I have considered fundraising, but I feel kind of ashamed to do that because everyone is in the same boat,” Gael says. “We have several customers who are anime characters that say ‘I know you’re broke, I know I can’t do this convention, but can you make this for me?’ They’re sweet enough to understand what we’re going through and throw a couple hundred bucks our way once in a while which is amazing.”
While Gael expressed thoughts of retirement in a previous Weelunk feature, her determination to serve the valley continues to override her opportunity to leave the business.
“I need to retire, I should retire, I am old enough to retire, but obviously I am not in any great hurry,” she laughs.
“This place has been a lifelong dream and it’s what I love to do. I can’t think of any better reason than to get up in the morning to come in here and make a mess.”
I asked Gael to describe what the future of Stages looks like moving forward.
“It’s not a business everyone wants to get into,” she admits “You need someone who doesn’t mind not making a lot of money and you need someone who can sew for sure – we make this stuff, that’s what we do. Because our basic industry is theatre, you may do four versions of the Little Mermaid and there aren’t two mermaids the same size anywhere,” Gael laughs.
Emily Mae, a young intern at Stages who has helped Gael build garments and handle day-to-day tasks for the past three years, shares her perspective. “I’ve always had an interest in sewing since I was 10 when I got my first machine. I would make hats – poorly, I would sew stuffed animals wonky, but I knew how to run a machine and I enjoyed it.”
Emily goes on to talk about her deep connection to garment building. “I feel when you make something yourself it says ‘this is who I am to the nth degree.’ It’s a very personal feeling you can’t just buy off the rack.”
While many answers still hang in the balance, the grit and determination of our local small businesses is undeniable.
“We’re messy, we’re sloppy, we’re artists, and it shows. We have a really delightful connection with the city and the local directors, teachers, actors and musicians – at the end of the day we are all a family.
Next time you’re downtown stop by Stages and say hello to Gael and Emily.
Life’s a stage after all, so you better be ready for your close up.
• Rosemary Ketchum is a member of the Wheeling City Council representing Ward 3. Rosemary is associate director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Greater Wheeling Drop-in Center and on the boards of several organizations including the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. She has served as a guest on MSNBC and has been profiled by several publications including Time Magazine, CBS and CNN for her work in community organizing and politics.