OAK HARBOR, Wash. — For Carolyn Merritt, the coronavirus pandemic provided an opportunity she didn't see coming.
"The stars aligned just right and a moment happened," said the Oak Harbor hair stylist.
Last year, Merritt had just moved to Washington from Nevada and didn't qualify for unemployment when the pandemic hit. So, she decided to take a leap of faith and open a salon of her own for the very first time.
As she did her homework, Merritt learned the coronavirus lockdown was forcing another salon to close.
"She decided it was time to retire because of the pandemic and all the other things that went along with it," said Merritt. "I thought, fair enough. It kind of worked out to my favor."
Merritt rented that space and opened Ship Shape Hair Design six weeks ago. She said business has been outstanding. Merritt believes opening in Oak Harbor's historic downtown district has been a big factor.
"I can't complain even a little bit. I thought I'd be sitting around for a month or so before my name got out there, but business for me has been amazing," said Merritt.
The salon is one of at least ten brand new businesses to open in downtown Oak Harbor over the past two months. As we move into a post-pandemic economy, rents are down, interest rates remain low. Perhaps most important, however, appears to be people's attitudes.
"They see an empty space and they see great potential," said Oak Harbor Main Street Association Executive Director Margaret Livermore.
Livermore also believes the pandemic prompted people to appreciate small businesses more -- knowing it's their neighbors who are behind the counter.
"The malls are all closing. Maybe Main Street America is going to take over," said Livermore. "People want community more than before. Hopefully, we'll go back to having nice little downtowns because it's what people want to go to."
Giving Livermore hope is a recent Union Bank survey that found 72% of Americans believing it's more important to support a small business than it is to get the best deal.
For now, Merritt is grateful for the opportunity provided to her by a premature retirement hastened by the pandemic. She is now planning a future for her own family, with the hope of retiring in Oak Harbor one day, too.
"Making our roots here is important for us," she said. "To be able to be a pillar in our community and help contribute is huge."