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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
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Local business owners’ essential guide to survive, thrive during global pandemic

Melanie Chumchal has many things in her arsenal — foresight, faith, family, business, community support and more.

The co-owner of RadioShack/Tec-Tronic Systems Inc. and Select Imports, Chumchal also battles Lupus, making her an especially high-risk individual at a time when a nation is wondering what the world will resemble after COVID-19.

One thing she doesn’t have, however, is fear.

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“On March 7, we started realizing we needed to take action, big time,” Melanie told The County Gin. “We told him to pack everything up and come home. That’s when we started doing things immediately ― when they were packing up the school and going online. We knew there were going to be some changes. 

“We thought, ‘This must be serious.’ And sure enough, as soon as we got him home, they closed the school down about three days later. It gave us a real indication that this was serious when they were sending these kids home.”

Despite the fear, the Chumchals sprang into action, as they soon learned they would be considered essential by the state.

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Because of AT&T Communications and a provider of First Net cell service for first responders, police departments and fire departments, in addition to FedEx, the storefront was considered essential to national security, according to the state. 

Even the furniture side of the business, Select Imports, was required to remain open.

‘(Amazon) failed us, and it was these stores and dollar stores and H-E-Bs that saved America in their local communities.’

The first step was to clean, said Randy. 

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“We started cleaning all day long. If we don’t have a customer, we are cleaning,” he stressed.

Masks, along with any other supplies needed to maintain their employees’ health, were immediately provided.

The business offers and operates air purifiers that are strategically placed throughout the building, which has been arranged so that employees minimize contact with customers.

Randy also procured a special chemical called L.S. Anolyte to spray in the store daily, in addition to bottles that were provided to employees as well. 

“We provided everyone with their own personal sprayer for their homes and cars so that they’re able to sanitize,” Melanie explained.

The health of their employees was always at the forefront, the Chumchals said. 

‘How are we going to have this new world of working around these people coming here and keep everyone safe?’

“We knew at that point when we were not going to close down, it put us in a weird position,” Melanie recalled. “There were a lot of emotions and we felt bad that our employees were not going to be able to stay at home. So, I would say that we did everything we needed to do to protect them in order to feel better about what was going to come.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the owners report that all their employees have remained healthy and gainfully employed.

Melanie considers this an incredible blessing, as she herself works the floor each day despite suffering from Lupus ― a systemic autoimmune disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. 

“Fortunately, most everyone here wasn’t high risk. I was the only one, so that was a fortunate thing, but that doesn’t mean there are not people around that aren’t high risk and we didn’t want to put them or their families in jeopardy,” she said. “It was just a lot of emotions and we had to work around it to ask, ‘How are we going to have this new world of working around these people coming here and keep everyone safe?’”

Melanie admits it took her approximately three and a half weeks to feel comfortable in the new normal.

“There was an extra layer of fear for me. It took me a while,” she said, noting the medications she takes to suppress her immune system so that it does not overstimulate and cause inflammation of her vital organs. 

“Basically, what Lupus does to me is what this virus does to people on a normal basis if I don’t take my medications. I get inflammation of the wall around my heart or my lungs from the overstimulation of my immune system. That’s exactly what they’re saying the virus is doing to people,” she said. “But I still feel like I’m young enough that my organs are still fine. I’d still be able to fight it off, but older people who have bad hearts and high blood pressure, their organs just give out because they don’t have the strength to fight it.”

Part of Melanie’s medication regime includes hydroxychloroquine ― a drug that has been given emergency authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has cautioned doctors amid ongoing uncertainty about its efficacy and side-effects when prescribed “off-label” to patients suffering from symptoms of the coronavirus. 

“I’ve been taking the hydroxychloroquine, but they aren’t sure about it. It takes months to work and to be effective,” she said. “I’m on these medications that suppress my immune system so therefore I’m very vulnerable.”

Despite the threat to her own health, Melanie feels tremendous empathy for other at-risk individuals.

“I feel really bad for those that are scared to death,” she continued, “and I understand it, because it took weeks to overcome that fear and I want to tell them that it’s okay ― it’s okay. Wear your mask; do what they tell you to do. It takes a little time to get over that fear.”

To reassure customers of their safety and to accommodate client needs, the Chumchals took additional steps during this time of weary apprehension.

‘People are ordering online and buying locally. They don’t realize that every little thing adds up and makes such a difference.’

While business took off on a slow start, it regained momentum with amenities and communication.

It is a feature of their business still in its infancy that has proved vital to their continued success. 

“Our furniture store went all online last year and I thank god that it happened. It wasn’t something that we really needed at the time because we rely on word-of-mouth marketing and we’re local. But we have found that it has just been amazing during this time, and it’s working,” Melanie said. “People are ordering online and buying locally. They don’t realize that every little thing adds up and makes such a difference. We need those sales and we are thankful (customers) have been supporting us because I’d say we are busier than before. If anything, we will up our online presence and remember to keep that communication open as far as requiring a mask or other major requirements.”

Through it all, they are both grateful to be an essential business for their community, which has supported them in turn through this trying time. 

“We were blessed during this; it could have been a major,” Melanie told The Gin. “We were very nervous at first; we didn’t know what to expect and that is the truth. We didn’t know how bad we were going to hurt or if we were going to be slow, but we were pleasantly surprised with the precautions and how high community support was.”

She also hopes that the importance of shopping locally will not be lost on the other side.

“People will start going back into their normal routine. What they don’t realize is that Amazon failed us as Americans. It failed us, and it was these stores and Dollar Stores and H-E-Bs that saved America in their local communities,” she stressed. “I just wish people would realize if they would support these stores like that all the time, we could stock to the capacity that we need to stock and they would never have to worry about having products.”

‘Just do your part. I try to share my experience and say, you need to get out, but you must be safe.’

Years ago, the Chumchals explained, their warehouse would be stocked to the brim and wonder now if that could be a reality again.

“If you knew you were supported, you would have that stock like we used to back in the old days like when we first started 20 years ago, you know? And all these stores could be stocked amply for the community but because of online, it’d be hard to go back to that,” Melanie said. “That’d be the best scenario ― if we could get back to the time when people would shop local first.”

Looking back on just the past few months, the Chumchals say they have changed the way they will do business forever and hope that some aspects do not return to the way they were before COVID-19 shook the American economy to its core. 

Even as establishments throughout the state begin to reopen their doors, maintaining a sanitary environment is at the forefront of the couple’s minds.

“I know that even if this goes away, we’re going to continue to clean,” Randy said. “We watch the customers get too close to the girls and remind them daily. We intentionally remind them to stay focused in all areas of their life. We still talk about it daily. Don’t lose sight.”

Most importantly, Melanie wishes for her community to be brave. It’s the biggest lesson she’s learned from the whole experience, she said.

“I just really encourage everyone to not fear getting out, but take precautions. It’ll be scary at first, but you just have to get out there and protect yourself and be understanding of those who go overboard and those who don’t know how to protect themselves. Just do your part. I try to share my experience and say, you need to get out, but you must be safe.

“Don’t fear; just trust the Lord. It always works out.”

Radio Shack/Tec-Tronic Systems Inc. and Select Imports is located at 423 Boling Highway in Wharton. Customers can contact the store at (979) 532-0011 or by visiting www.selectimportsfurniture.com or www.tectronicsystems.com.

Natalie Frels-Busbyhttps://www.thecountygin.com
Natalie Frels-Busby is the former editor-in-chief of The County Gin.

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