Business

‘COVID was the tipping point’: Beloved downtown antiques shop to close

Dis-A-Rays will not exist beyond May.

A beloved downtown antiques shop is about to join the city’s history books.

Ray Mitchell with his dog Ember on Wyndham Street North on May 2, 2020. GUELPHWIRE/Eli Ridder

It was over 10 years ago when Ray Mitchell opened Dis-A-Ray Antiques but now, because of the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged small businesses across the country, he will lock the doors for a final time at the end of May.

Mitchell told GuelphWire on Saturday that he gave his landlord a 30-day warning at the end of April that he would not be able to lease the space he occupied on Wyndham Street North near Guelph Central Station.

“COVID was the tipping point,” Mitchell explained, referencing the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. He said that “gentrification and the opioid crisis” had created a “really bad business economy” downtown that he described as a “two-headed monster”.

“So, there’s been a fraction of as many customers as there’s normally on the streets for at least the last two or three years,” he added, pulling down his revenues even before the lockdowns began.

“It’s going to be a big blow to the downtown,” Mitchell said. Beyond his own source of income, which has been dry since the pandemic forced his shop to close, he added: “I mostly feel sorry for the people that love the store.”

University students, low-income residents and antiquity fans were his main base of customers but it remained a shop that many in Guelph were familiar with.

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“Stores like his are what make downtown’s unique and special in any city,” Steve Petric, who runs the Vintage Guelph Facebook page, said.

“I used to go to his Family Thrift Store as a kid with my dad all the time in the 90s. He has been a fixture downtown for so long it will be strange not having his unique little store in downtown.”

Before he started Dis-A-Ray, Mitchell used to run the Family Thrift Store on the north end of Wyndham until he was evicted from that location in 2009 to make way for the parking lot that acts as a place holder for a proposed new library.

“But [the thrift store] didn’t fit in with the downtown’s idea of gentrification because they really didn’t want any thrift stores in the downtown core even though that’s where a huge amount of the poor people live,” Mitchell explained.

Mitchell decided to move to another location downtown, the area of the city he most loves, and launch his antiquities shop. However, when the province announced that non-essential businesses needed to close in March, he was forced to close the physical location.

“This thing started pretty early in March [and] the first two weeks of March for anybody was sort of crappy,” he said.

“After that, of course, unless you have an online presence or that kind of a thing … you’re talking zero income.”

Dis-A-Ray was unable to qualify for any of the coronavirus relief funds available for small businesses, largely because Mitchell does not have any employees, he explained to GuelphWire.

Mitchell was approved for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit though he said that it was not enough to live off of and pay the rent on the space he leased.

Ray Mitchell in front of Dis-A-Ray Antiques on May 2, 2020. GUELPHWIRE/Eli Ridder

But it’s not all bad, Mitchell added. The physical distancing required by public health officials have given the self-employer antiques dealer a much-needed break, saying that, “in a way, I’m one of the lucky ones –there’s very few of those.”

“I think it was killing me, it was literally 80 hours a week,” he said of running the antique shop solo.

“This is the first time I’ve had off since I was maybe 10 years old and had started delivering newspapers.”

As for the future, Mitchell said he is looking at options for new spaces.

“We’re exploring maybe options of you know run down buildings on the outskirts of the downtown,” he said.

“Maybe down in the heart of the ward where maybe I could pay half the rent and turn it into another sort of artistic commune.”

(Reporting by Eli Ridder; Sub-editor Scotty Hertz)