Vogue.com | In a World on Fire, One Bay Area Store Owner Wonders: “What’s Next?”

First it was COVID, then it was protests against police violence, then it was tackling distance-learning (even without kids I was feeling parents’ stress), and now the world actually is on fire. Northern California has been ablaze since rogue dry lightning storms, caused by climate change, ignited wildfires in August. Last Tuesday, smoke from an inferno in Mendocino turned the sky in the Bay Area, about 150 miles south, a cloudy, ominous red that lasted until afternoon. “What’s next?” friends texted incredulously. I begged them not to ask.

Driving in the dark that morning to the Marin location of my women’s specialty store Hero Shop, which had re-opened for in-person shopping in June, felt downright apocalyptic. Streetlights were still on at 9 am, the roads were empty, the air eerie. I was so unsettled that I almost forgot about the first Zoom presentation of the spring 2021 season that was scheduled to start in an hour. (That’s a whole other story, how retailers are now shopping online for their stores. If you want to know how it’s going, consider how many things you bought online and returned this month.) I logged on and, as the designer on screen espoused the ease and wearability of a pristine white strapless jumpsuit, I sat and wondered to myself, in what world? Certainly not the dystopia I was looking at outside the window.

It’s not dissimilar to how some people who have come into Hero Shop have felt over the last month or two. “It’s cute but where will I wear this?” they ask, considering a tiered floral skirt or crisp cotton shirt dress. Until recently I’ve told them, to a picnic! To the kind of ladies’ birthday lunch you said you just came from! To a socially-distanced wedding! But now, living underneath a smoky sky day after day, it’s a more difficult question to address. We can’t go outside because of poor air quality and we can’t gather inside because of COVID. So I don’t know. I don’t totally know where you’re going to wear that dress that I ordered six months ago. But to continue my business, I have to sell it.

This is not new. Since the pandemic started I’ve struggled with how to encourage people to buy things in spite of the world ending. We’ve donated sales to relevant causes (food banks, the NAACP), made steps to adopt more environmentally friendly and racially just practices, and tried to be sensitive with our messaging. Thankfully, our clients understand, and they’re shopping to support us. Even if they have to wear that crisp cotton shirt dress on their couch.

But for how long? The sad reality is that the fires weren’t unexpected, just early. California’s fire season typically begins in October. Around that time last year, because of high winds and the burning wildfires, PG&E preventatively shut off our power for two days and the store had to close. Presumably that’s still ahead. May that be the worst of what’s next.

—Emily Holt