For 90 minutes to two hours per night, folks who own shops in downtown Princeton are on the phone with one another, brainstorming new ways to generate business, interact with customers and support those who've been laid off in direct response to the current public health crisis.

Your local Main Street may look like a ghost town, depending on its layout and the variety of businesses in the district, but they're not completely dead — even with state-mandated closures and limitations in place, in the face of COVID-19.

"We basically have turned our two stores — one in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey — into warehouses and online fulfillment centers, and then we also deliver to customers," said Dean Smith, co-owner of Jazams, a toy and book store in Palmer Square.

The option, he said, has served as a "lifeline" for locals spending time inside, Smith said. And it's a lifeline for the small business, like many others along New Jersey's Main Streets, just trying to hold on until the health threat subsides.

"We all have a desire to open, but we all want to do that in a safe manner, from the perspective of our employees and our customers," Smith said.

To keep customers informed on who's open and who's not, and what's available even though doors have closed, downtown areas throughout the state, or local residents just looking to help these districts, have created websites serving as a database for this information.

"Nobody's doing as well as they were doing before, but they're doing okay," said Rebecca Hersh, director of Main Street of Highland Park. "I would hate to see any of them permanently go under."

The nonprofit is among the groups attempting to maintain a business-status database.

"Businesses are sort of changing what they're doing almost everyday," Hersh said.

The organization has also increased its presence on social media and through emails, in order to keep the small businesses on potential customers' minds.

"Don't always default to ordering from Amazon," Hersh said. "A lot of times you can get stuff from your local business. If people are able, it's really important to support them."

The Main Street Alliance, a national group, said establishing an online presence is not a 1-2-3 task for small businesses that had only conducted in-person sales and were blindsided by the pandemic. With the average small business carrying about 15 cash buffer days, attention from the public and the support of other businesses in the area are crucial.

"What we're really seeing is the importance of the small business economy in this crisis," said Sarah Crozier, senior communications manager for the Alliance.

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