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Surely it can’t get any worse than this…

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Canberra’s retail sector has been dealt a terrible hand over the last six months with smoke, fire, hail and now COVID restrictions. Co-owner of Fyshwick’s Quizzic Alley Penni Milton asks: surely it can’t get any worse than this?

First there is smoke, so much smoke. It is so smoky we almost don’t notice the extreme heat.

On hot, smoky days, moving around Canberra in a yellow glow, it feels like the end of the world. It’s like this for much of the summer school holidays and people just stay indoors.

At our shop, Quizzic Alley, we’d been hoping for big sales for our second Christmas since opening. We scratch and wish and hope and finally make it to Christmas Day about 20 per cent down on the previous year.

“Surely it can’t get any worse than this?” asks my husband Michael as I drive all the way to Sydney and back one night to buy the only air purifier we can find.

Hmmmm. Two days off over Christmas. We spend most of our precious but short break watching the news as the fires on the south coast spread.

By New Year’s we are filling water bottles out the front of the shop. They’re bound for the fire zone where injured wildlife have nothing to drink.

Michael Milton filling water bottles headed to fire-affected areas.

Friends and loved ones not that far away are constantly on edge, trapped or stranded on beaches, awaiting hell.

Meanwhile, the fires lurk on our doorstep and we watch as the beautiful Namadji National Park goes up in flames.

“Surely it can’t get any worse than this?” asks Michael as we evacuate our shop and head for home, hoping for the best.

Hmmmm. Soon rocks of ice are hurtling at us from above. By the time we find shelter under an overpass, our son is hysterical with fear (it was very scary), the car is a mess and the trailer is half full of the biggest hail we’ve ever seen.

In the space of an hour or so, the hailstorm reeks unimaginable havoc. 40,000 cars in the ACT are destroyed, including ours. We were on our way to collect a second-hand Chesterfield for the shop.

$200 for the lounge plus $750 excess. That lounge turned out to be a much bigger purchase. Please make sure you sit on it when you next visit Quizzic Alley: we want to make sure we get our monies worth.

If you could throw in a few comments along the lines of “Wow, this lounge is sssooo comfortable” and “I would pay thousands for it” that would help.

“Surely it can’t get any worse than this?” asks Michael as we wait for the car to be assessed.

Hmmm. Talk of coronavirus gets more serious and we spend hours and hours developing policies and procedures to protect, among others, the young witches and wizards celebrating their birthdays in potions classes at Quizzic Alley.

Within days our efforts are completely irrelevant as government restrictions force the closure of our potions classroom. We scramble to minimise the damage and encourage parents to postpone not cancel. If everyone asks for their deposit back Quizzic Alley will be crippled within a day.

Michael and Penni Milton at Quizzic Alley.

Young witches and wizards all over the city weep when their magical birthday parties are “postponed indefinitely” but only five or six ask for a refund.

“Surely it can’t get any worse than this?” asked Michael as we sit in the empty potions classroom feeling like we dodged a bullet but wondering how Quizzic Alley will survive without nine parties a week to drive foot traffic through the doors.

Hmmm. Testing for COVID-19 starts in earnest, the number of cases rises daily, inbound travel restrictions are introduced, Australians overseas are urged to return home, quarantine for those affected is mandatory. It feels like a shut-down is inevitable.

We await news of decisions made at each meeting of the National Cabinet. “Non-essential” businesses are forced to close. Is that us? It seems not. What about beauticians and hairdressers? Confusion reigns. No one has said that retail outlets must close but many are doing so anyway. Should we close? This is our only income. How will we survive?

As the government moves to protect lives, we reduce our opening hours with no knowledge of when things will return to normal nor how long Quizzic Alley can remain in business.

We call every staff member to let them know we can’t give them work. We’re all upset.

Events are cancelled. National attractions close. Tourists stop coming. Customers head back indoors, this time in fear of a virus instead of smoke.

Online sales pick up but it’s not enough. We scramble again to come up with new content to drive online sales, load more products onto the website, start running online quizzes to keep our customers engaged with Quizzic Alley, spend hours catching up on accounts, measuring sales, calculating percentages, asking questions.

Are we eligible for any of the government stimulus packages? Which of our staff can get Job Keeper? How do we make all this happen, re-invent and run a business, pick and pack online orders, home-school our kids and pay the bills while sales are in freefall and we can’t afford to pay our staff? If Quizzic Alley goes under, we lose our home.

Michael is on the phone calling suppliers, looking for puzzles. It’s the only thing anyone is buying. ScoMo says buying puzzles qualifies as an essential activity. We need to find more.

Tasmania closes its borders. We cancel our family trekking holiday. We haven’t been away for more than a couple of days since the store opened in September 2018.

“Surely it can’t get any worse than this?” asks Michael as we confirm credits for our flights with…you guessed it—Virgin!

Hmmm. “Hello, is that Penni Milton? Are you the key-holder for Quizzic Alley?”

It’s 6.45 am Easter Monday and the Police are calling. Some Grade A scumbag has driven a car through the front of our store. There is glass and debris everywhere.

Turns out ours isn’t the only shop ram-raided or broken into, but it was the last. Quizzic Alley was the scumbag’s undoing.

The car got stuck and he scarpered, leaving it and some stolen goods behind. We are reminded of the whomping willow. That’s settled then: Quizzic Alley really is magical!

“Surely it can’t get…. ” Sssshhhhhhh.

“Don’t you dare ask that question again because some bastard somewhere keeps answering.”

We are the lucky ones after all. But surely, SURELY, it can’t get any worse than this?

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