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Friends and supporters rally around The Dragon (5 photos)

In this Following Up feature we check back with Jennifer Haines at the Dragon comics shop where customers and supporters have rallied to help them survive

Many local shops reopened Thursday now that lockdown restrictions on non-essential retail businesses are being relaxed.

It is welcome news for business owners and customers alike, but the elation is measured with a healthy dose of uncertainty as everyone adjusts to the new normal.

Some, like The Dragon comics store, have had to resort to new means just to survive the past few months.

“Honestly, I don’t know what it is going to be like,” said Jennifer Haines, owner of The Dragon. “Are we going to have floods of people or is it going to be crickets. I have no idea.”

The pandemic has tested and taken its toll on many small businesses including The Dragon and without the direct support from many of its loyal customers it might not have survived.

The award-winning comics shop has grown in size and popularity since Haines opened the first store in 1998. There are now three Dragon locations, two in Guelph and one in Milton.

The main store in the Old Quebec Street Shoppes has been a hub of activity lately with staff and volunteers mopping the floors, sanitizing all surfaces, stocking shelves, setting up displays and putting social distancing protocols in place.

“A lot of people have been calling us and asking when we are going to open,” said Haines. “When can I come in? I need to look around. Please let me come in and look around.”

It is the kind of thing store owners like to hear and if the response to a recently launched GoFundMe campaign is any indication, Haines has good reason for cautious optimism.

A customer and friend, Esmeralda Pitman, launched the crowd-sourcing page on Sunday and by Wednesday it had been shared more than 600 times and raised more than $10,000.

“They are friends of ours and we have five kids so, we are here a lot.” said Pitman. “They do so much for the community and everyone else and they need help. So, we helped.”

Donations have ranged from $5 to $1,000 with many of the big donors choosing to remain anonymous.

Dozens of gushing donor comments posted on the page have been a morale booster for Haines.

“Every city needs at least one mythical beast,” wrote McBride Hunter. “Guelph would be much diminished without its Dragon.”

Donor, Devon Meunier wrote, “Because I want the Dragon to be around when my kids are old enough to see how amazing it is. Because Jenn is an incredible community builder. Because comics.”

Perhaps Aaron Broverman best describes the determination of Dragon fans to help their favourite comic shop.

“The Dragon will not be slayed if we have anything to do about it,” he wrote.

Haines has been overwhelmed by the support.

“It has been really humbling and moving to have so many people say so many amazing things about the store and what it means to them,” she said. “Reading all the comments and seeing how many people support us and have shared the GoFundMe has really made it clear that the vision is coming across clearly to people and we’re doing what I wanted to do. That feels amazing.”

When GuelphToday last spoke to Haines in mid-May, she was organizing a two-day live Facebook event. The Be Our Heroes telethon raised money for comic artists and others in the comics business that were being hurt by the lockdown.

“We raised almost $12,000, which is incredible, and people just absolutely loved it,” said Haines. “It really brought the Canadian community together, creators and fans.”

At the time, Haines, was focused on helping others and not too worried about the fate of The Dragon.

“At the beginning of all of this and even six weeks ago when we talked, I was saying, ‘We are weathering this,” she said. “All is well.”

That optimism waned as the lockdown dragged on and the money dried up. Suppliers shutdown, they lost 70 per cent of their business and didn’t qualify for enough government rent and wage relief to cover their losses.

“For the first time I was really worried that the business wasn’t going to make it,” said Haines. “That was a really hard thing for me to realize.”

Pitman recognized the urgency of the situation and launched the GoFundMe campaign.

“It all came out of me posting on my personal Facebook about the struggles I was having,” said Haines. “Esmeralda and Matt Pitman are amazing people who saw that we needed help and they just wanted to help us out and I’m so grateful to have people like that in my corner. All the people that offered to come and help clean, watch my kids. We’ve had so many offers to come and help.”

It is that kind of community support that the Dragon and other local businesses are going to need going forward as they adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic.

“I don’t know what that is going to look like and people are going to be in recovery mode for months and months,” said Haines. “Our lives are going to be disrupted by this for a long time and it is hard to say what impact that is going to have.”