Portrait of an American city at the dawn of a pandemic
PITTSBURGH -- On Friday, James Coen is folding and unfolding, arranging and rearranging the piles of colorful St. Patrick's Day T-shirts he has displayed on folding tables outside one of the three sports retail stores he owns. The stores are all large historic buildings with big, shiny, planked hardwood floors, all snuggled in a three-block radius between assorted assemblages of late-19th-century buildings along what is affectionately called "The Strip" or "Strip District."
No one calls him by his given name. He is "Jimmy Yinzer," the unofficial mayor of the city and purveyor of all things Pittsburgh. He's mostly known for having the largest inventory of Steelers, Penguins and Pirates items you would need to wear, wave or grill. His stores are all called Yinzers, an affectionate hat tip to the people of the city he loves, whose unique dialect includes referring to a group of people as "yinz."
It is nearing 70 degrees, and there isn't a cloud in the sky. Had it been any other March day in any other year, the nine blocks that make up the Strip District would be so overflowing with people that cars would have a difficult time navigating Penn Avenue to get to their destination, especially just days ahead of Pittsburgh's legendary St. Patrick's Day Parade.
But while the district is not barren, and at times it is bustling, the numbers are still down.
Coen is used to holding court, solving problems and waiting on customers at an exhausting rate. On Friday, he is enjoying a rare lunch at Cafe Raymond across the street from his marquee store, a lunch hour he typically works through. The biggest times of the year in retail for him and the rest of the Strip are football season, Penguins postseason, Pirates opening day, Christmastime and the lead-up to the St. Patrick's Day Parade.
The parade was just canceled.
"Last weekend, I thought we might be able to hold our own through this crisis," he explains. "By Monday of this week, we were down 50% in our business. By the time they canceled the parade Wednesday, I was down 75%."
Those St. Patrick's Day T-shirts that help him make bank every year are now 50% off.
"I have 25 employees," he says. "I looked at my bank account. I am not sure what I can do if this goes on much longer."
Raymond Mikesell, the owner of Cafe Raymond, is watching the cafe dining room from the kitchen counter. The day before, there was nobody eating his legendary food. On Friday, the place was doing much better: "Thursday was the worst," he says. "Every catering job we had scheduled has been canceled all the way through until May. Today is a much-needed improvement. I had people coming in steadily and just said they wanted to support us."