“It’s up to us to be a beacon of light:” Matt Woods’ take on what it means to be essential

When Ohio’s lockdown orders went into effect at midnight, March 23rd, I had no idea how much my world as a father, husband, and a business owner would change. Just a few days prior we were desperately trying to reach our congressman, our state legislators, and Governor DeWine to say that our businesses are essential for the communities we serve.

When final guidance was issued on who could and couldn’t stay open, a clear sense of relief was felt among all of our employees at Acme Lock and our Woods Hardware chain. To go from one of the best years we have ever had to all of a sudden having to shudder our doors was incredibly unsettling considering we got our founding in the Great Depression and have never had to lay an employee off in our history.

Once the reality of being considered an essential business kicked in, then the survivor’s guilt hit hard. I don’t want to be seen as a profiteer when so much of what we sell is to keep our customers safe, keep their mind and bodies active, as well as maintain their homesteads.

One of the best things about being a hardware store is that our theme is: “We are a community center that happens to do hardware.” I can attribute at least 10 pounds of my weight to the free popcorn we offer at each of our stores. I owe my coffee addiction to having free cups available all day. But with the mandate to keep our customers and employees safe, we had to turn it all off for fear we would be a hot spot for spreading this virus.

Our customers and employees are like family, and with six-feet guidelines and the unease of not knowing who is sick and who isn’t, plus the worry that so many of our customers are struggling financially and emotionally we feel like it’s up to us to be a light.

It may seem hokey when I say it but we think that the best way for us to move forward is to give people hope and give them something to do while we wait this out. We decided to bring in flowers weeks earlier than normal. We decided to bring in the amazing waffles from Taste of Belgium. We decided to allow curbside pickup for canned beer from Westside Brewing. We decided to let Marx Hot Bagels sell their delicious bagels in our stores. The best part about it was the graciousness each of these businesses showed us. We didn’t mark up their products one cent and our customers just beamed at the ability to support another small business in need.

It’s hard to not wallow in our new reality. We have had nine employees either go into quarantine or be deemed high risk who need to stay at home long term. The worst feeling in the world is knowing we have to be open to get the essential products like disinfectants and yes, even toilet paper, to our customers, but then having the reality that we might be putting our employees in harm’s way every day can be very upsetting.

We are absolutely doing everything we can to keep them safe but there is no foolproof way to keep from getting sick except staying at home. When this pandemic ends — and it will end — we just want our customers to remember that it’s community that really makes our city great and we will do everything we can to give people hope without trying to profit from our tragic current reality.

Matt Woods is the CEO of Woods Hardware and Acme Lock.

Over the next few weeks, Soapbox will share work from community members and business owners regarding their thoughts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Have a story you’d like to share? Email [email protected] for consideration in an upcoming issue.

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