This pandemic survival message comes with warm wishes from a wool store in Hutchinson

"People are working really hard but this is going leave a mark, let’s put it that way," Andrea Springer says of the pandemic's effect on Kansas. Springer, left, and her husband Steve Snook opened The Wool Market and DIY School in downtown Hutchinson in August 2018. (Dave McKane)

When you run a yarn store, you hear people’s troubles.

“People come in because they need things that make them relax, and they share that story with you that you don’t expect,” Andrea Springer said of her clientele at the Wool Market and DIY School in downtown Hutchinson.

One weekend, two customers had lost family members to COVID-19. Others, if she knows they work in the medical field or are teachers and there’s a quiet moment in the store, she’ll ask how they’re doing.

“People are carrying loads,” she said. “Sometimes you feel more like a social worker than a retailer.”

Springer’s had other careers. She worked in public broadcasting, fundraising and consulting before she and her husband, Steve Snook, opened the Wool Market two years ago. He had background in retail and in the medical field, and she’d taught knitting and worked part-time at yarn shops to, she said, “support my fiber habit.”

Seizing an opportunity that came “out of the blue” in 2017, Springer and Snook bought the building on Main Street that for 60 years had been home to Johnson’s Music Center.

They filled one side with soft and colorful rolls of yarn that everyone immediately wants to touch, and set up the other side with movable walls and technology for classes and a sitting area — “so husbands didn’t have to wait outside in the car,” Springer said — with a fridge where people could buy drinks for a dollar.

When Andrea Springer and Steve Snook opened the Wool Market & DIY School in downtown Hutchinson in August 2018, they planned for a hard first three years — but not for a pandemic. (Wool Market and DIY School/Facebook)

“What we wanted to do wasn’t solely a retail endeavor,” Springer said.

When people sit around a table sharing a hobby, she said, they visit and get to know each other in a nonthreatening setting.

“We felt like that kind of dialogue needed to happen, particularly after the election in 2016 when we saw a lot of division in the state and knew people on both sides of the aisle that we admired and respected,” Springer said.

It was working. Foot traffic was increasing and they’d built a social media following. People showed up for classes and rented that side of the building for lectures, birthday parties and showers. The Reno County Farmers Market asked them to host the market indoors through the winter, which they did until, Springer said, “things started going south with COVID in March.”

They’d planned for the first three years to be hard — but not for a pandemic.

Like other small-business owners I’ve written about over the last few months, they innovated, doing business curbside, expanding deliveries — they shipped wool anywhere in the lower 48 states for $5 — and learning how to sell over Facebook live. Money from the Paycheck Protection Program and a no-interest loan through Downtown Hutchinson helped too.

In one of the last classes before The Wool Market and DIY School closed due to COVID-19, participants learned how to dye wool by hand in February 2020. They wore masks to keep from inhaling powdered dye. (Andrea Springer)

They were actually ahead, sales-wise, until September.

“People don’t think about knitting and crocheting when it’s hot outside, but the State Fair is when we see it gear up with foot traffic,” she said of the annual event that draws hundreds of thousands of people to the city of just over 40,000 but was canceled this year.

Now, she said, they’re hanging on. Even despite a much-needed downtown infrastructure project that’s blocked the street and sidewalk out front, she said, people still find them.

Over the past couple of years, Springer watched the Wool Market & DIY School become a “tourist attraction” over the holidays.

“We get a lot of traffic and sales the week after Thanksgiving and before and after Christmas, when people have relatives in looking for things to do,” she said. “We don’t have that now because we should be staying home.”

But the thing about building community is, it’s there when you need it.

What Springer called “amazing” was how people responded to RallyReno.org, a gift-card program set up by the Hutchinson/Reno Chamber of Commerce, the Hutchinson Community Foundation and the United Way of Reno County. Donors matched every gift certificate purchased, raising more than $150,000 in about six weeks, all of which went to small businesses.

“Every single day, we remind ourselves we are grateful for what we’ve been given and the support we have,” Springer said.

“We willingly closed our business in support of the greater good, and that was a sacrifice,” she says, but the response affirmed that they’re offering something of value.

Now, she says, customers come in and check on them.

“That’s what I love about Kansas,” she said. “We’re not perfect, but there’s some community here.”

The pandemic will “leave a mark” on the state, she said.

But when I asked Springer to explain what she loves about her craft, I heard a metaphor.

“If there’s something I don’t like, it’s not coming together, I can pull it apart and there are an infinite number of do-overs,” she said. “I can try a different yarn, go at it form a different angle. Not everything in life works that way. Knitting does.”

Maybe that’s one lesson from this awful year: More things in life should work like knitting.