Small business owner shares community plea as COVID-19 robs him of his 'passion'

Man standing smiling shop window

Rob Weaver has run Maison Blanc in Hitchin since 2007. - Credit: Rob Weaver

A small independent shop owner has shared the stark reality of his and many others' situation, one month on from the government announcement that all non-essential businesses in Herts were to close.

Rob Weaver has owned Maison Blanc, a bespoke furniture and craft shop in Hitchin's Bancroft, since March 2007.

He's seen a lot in these last 14 years - a global recession, the back and forth of Brexit and regular faces popping in and out of his shop.

But, like many small business owners across the country, 2020 brought a challenge like no other in the form of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last April, he was forced to close his business' doors for the first time, his one reliable source of income turned off like a tap.


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And when Tier 4 coronavirus restrictions were announced for our area on December 19, Rob was forced to shut up shop again - swapping paint brushes for textbooks as he helps his son with chemistry lessons.

Rob says the first national lockdown, which officially began March 23, was easier because people were using their newfound time on projects that use the paints, crafts and other upcycling goods that Maison Blanc offers.

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"The High Street was already a lot quieter than it was," Rob says.

"Online sales, the global recession and Brexit have all contributed to that. But these last 10 months have been the worst I can remember.

"This third lockdown has been tougher for me, emotionally and mentally."

He describes the November lockdown as a "killer blow" - the four busiest weeks of Rob's year stripped away from him with less than 48 hours notice.

"The run up to Christmas is always busiest, so that was painful. I've got Christmas stock still boxed up that I can't use, if I sold it on a sale I might get back what I paid for it.

What's worse is that Rob says he is yet to receive any money from the government's coronavirus grants, despite Chancellor Rishi Sunak announcing £4.5billion in grants more than two weeks ago.

Rob adds: "The financial packages, if I'm being honest, are shockingly insulting. The money that is being given to us is so low that I can understand why people do everything they can to keep their doors open.

"Put it this way, the day before I was forced to close in November, I took home more in a single day than the government would give me for the month.

"I don't do this for money, I don't think many small independents do. We're never going to get rich from it. But we're here because this is our passion and we love what we do."

Since November, 5 non-essential retailers in Hitchin have only been able to open for 19 days out of a possible 76.

In an impassioned post on Facebook that has been shared hundreds of times, Rob explains that he's looking to raise awareness rather than receive sympathy.

"Lockdown has been tough on all of us, unless you're Amazon or the big supermarket chains.

"I’m not alone in this situation, but please, if you can, use the small independent shops and businesses near you. We really can only survive this with the continued support of our local community."

So could this be the final nail in the coffin for many of Hitchin's beloved independent retailers?

Tom Hardy, Hitchin town centre manager says the new one-off grants being offered to businesses are "nowhere near enough".

He said: "The Chancellor's announcement of a new one-off grant has been welcomed but is nowhere near enough to fill the cash void most businesses have experience over the Christmas period and into the lockdown.

"I would like to see a new grants scheme based on profit loss to give those most affected a better chance of surviving.

"The pandemic is at an all-time high and, understandably, far fewer people are able to get out and support businesses in the same way they did in Tier 2, 3 and 4.

"With the landlord eviction protection coming to an end in March, the government needs to find a way of better protecting businesses or risk losing them permanently.

"Hitchin is one of the most vibrant and successful market towns in the country. The government's decisions of support over the next few weeks could be a the decider, for many, if they can survive these restrictions."

Rob adds: "During the November lockdown, WHSmiths and Hotel Chocolat were allowed to remain open and it just doesn't make any sense to me. I know other independent businesses are hanging by a thread.

"I personally agree with the lockdown, if you're asked to shut you should. But many have found loopholes. I do think these last 10 months could see some of our local stores close for good.

"My message would be that although it's often easier and sometimes cheaper to buy on Amazon, remember that supporting your small independents helps us put food on the table, and gives something back to the local economy."

For more information about Maison Blanc, or to read Rob's passionate post in full, visit their Facebook page or email sales@lamaisonblanc.co.uk

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