A bright computer screen lights the dim room as Tyler Sudderth, general manager of Voertman’s College Store, checks the orders from the previous day. Silence hangs in the air. There is no foot traffic.
Stay-at-home orders following the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the doors of many Denton County businesses to walk-in customers. Many of the store’s student workers and customers have returned to their hometowns to finish the semester online.
Sudderth frowns when he talks about the estimated $50,000 in sales Voertman’s has lost in the last few weeks. Online classes and online ordering created a harsh new reality for the store, which benefited for decades being located across the street from the University of North Texas.
“One of the main reasons I loved this job was not only being able to work with our peers, but our student crew as well,” Sudderth says. “Walking into an empty store very much puts in your face that we are losing business.”
As a small business selling textbooks, art supplies and university merchandise, the store was not deemed essential. Online classes may still require textbooks. But students and professors were also turning to other resources online.
Also a new father, Sudderth visits the store five days a week to keep a sense of normalcy. His goal remains getting work done behind the scenes to keep the store running smoothly. But he also faces the reality of paying the bills for the business and his family, as well as keeping them and store employees safe.
The store adjusted its return policy and other practices in the pandemic. A drop box at the back entrance is set up for rental textbook returns. Shipping on online orders is free, and the business remains open for online ordering of textbooks for the summer semester.
“My fear of [catching] the virus has waned over the past couple of weeks,” Sudderth says. “I think of our crew here as much of a family as my own, and we spent some long nights talking about how to make it work for everyone.”
Voertman’s has long thrived on making connections with customers, giving good service and matching prices at other stores. Now Sudderth and his employees must work harder to provide that service through the store’s website and social media.
As Sudderth locks up, the small frown that vanished after hours of work has returned. The spring semester is winding down and registration has begun for the fall. He wonders when the store will reopen its doors so students can browse for textbooks and supplies they need.
“There will be some businesses that aren’t as lucky as we are and haven’t had the resources to be ready to reopen when they are allowed to,” he says. “I’m trying to be grateful for what we’ve got and what we’ve been able to use so that when we can reopen, we’re ready to roll.”