To the casual observer, Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles last Monday afternoon was back in full swing. The sun shone brightly and throngs of fashionistas decked in edgy streetwear prowled the famed shopping district.
People clacked away on their laptops on the Starbucks patio. Even tattoo parlors and barbershops showed signs of life after a tumultuous year, with customers waiting on benches outside.
Earlier that morning, the iconic Pink's Hot Dogs reopened after a voluntary two-month closure.
Now that coronavirus case levels are falling and the vaccination effort is underway, Richard Pink, the son of the stand's founders and its current co-owner, said it was time to kick-start the family business again.
"People want a sense of normalcy. They want to return to what it was like before what we're going through," Pink said just before the stand opened its doors for the first time since early January.
Still, the unsettling reality that the COVID-19 pandemic was far from vanquished tempered the optimism of business owners, who have gone through the cycle of hope and despair before.
And things were far from normal: Business was nowhere near the level before the novel coronavirus surged across the U.S.
After the killing by a Minneapolis police officer of George Floyd, a Black man, in late May, protests erupted in the Melrose area. Though the protests were largely peaceful, some businesses were damaged — and some shops never reopened.
Things eventually began to pick up after all that happened in 2020, but some shops have recovered better than others.
"It really is a struggle. We haven't made a profit. It's just been coming out of the savings. But we're in good company with the rest of the world," said Donato Crowley, who co-owns Cosmo & Donato, a clothing store that specializes in flashy couture pieces made for Burning Man and other events.
But Burning Man — the store's "Christmas" — was canceled last year and organizers say they are not yet sure about this year's event. Crowley and his business partner have been surviving entirely on savings and are in the middle of applying for government assistance.
It's the same story several blocks west at Paul Smith, a high-end men's fashion retailer famous for a bright pink wall where tourists and influencers once swarmed to take Instagram photos.
There wasn't anyone hanging around the wall, in part because the store is discouraging large groups from gathering there, according to store manager Henry Alcantar.
But there are fewer people showing up in general. Double-decker tour buses aren't delivering the travelers who used to make up a large part of their customer base.
About 1,300 people a week passed through the store on average before the pandemic closures last March, according to Alcantar. That's dwindled to about 200.
As a result, Paul Smith has closed stores across the country, including temporarily shuttering one in downtown L.A. Hours were reduced and several employees were let go at the Melrose location.
"No one wants to be stuck inside," said Alcantar, explaining why he thinks people haven't been coming into the store. "They've been inside for long enough, so they just want to be outside."
Normally at this time of the year, the retailer would be busy outfitting celebrities for the Golden Globes and other upcoming award's shows. But people aren't buying suits like they used to.
So Paul Smith pivoted to more casual wear. The sales associates, down to just two at the Melrose store, once wore suits.
Now they're expected to dress down to promote the new aesthetic. Alcantar himself was wearing black Converse.
Even Pink's, with a dedicated clientele and storied history, has been stretched financially. Down about 30% in revenue, Pink said all earnings are used to keep the lights on and hot dogs cooking. There have been no profits since the pandemic struck last year, he said.