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Employed is a weekly reporting series focused on the new Northwoods.The landscape of living, playing, and working in the Northwoods is changing. Where we work, where we shop, where we reside, and how we support our families looks different than it did even a decade ago. It continues to shift as industry, tourism, retail, services, and natural resources shift.Entrepreneurship, broadband, work-from-home, and COVID-19 are all part of that mix. What makes you wonder, or what story ideas do you have for Employed? Submit them below.

Northwoods ‘Throwback’ Shops Turn to Zoom, Facebook to Connect During Pandemic

On a recent Saturday, Bill Sherer carefully wrapped fine thread and colorful chenille around a hook. A handful of fly-tying learners watched and copied the move with the materials in their own hands.

Sherer has been teaching these classes at his self-proclaimed “throwback, old-fashioned” fly-fishing shop, We Tie It in Boulder Junction, for years.

Bill Sherer, teaching a class on Zoom.

“Here in the Upper Midwest, we have fishing season and we have fly-tying season. It’s a great winter activity,” Sherer said.

But for this winter’s round of classes, Sherer is the only one in his shop.

His students are at their own homes, participating over Zoom.

It’s the latest pivot forced by the pandemic, which started affecting Northwoods businesses in March and April. Zoom fly-tying classes are just one example of local businesses getting creative and adjusting to new ways of operation.

Sherer’s business took a hit starting in the spring. He’s a fly-fishing guide during warmer months.

“It was pretty tough in the spring. Everybody was very worried, as they should have been. I had a lot of cancelations,” he said.

Credit Bill Sherer
Bill Sherer's setup for broadcasting fly-tying classes, with three cameras and plenty of light.

Sherer muddled through, thinking he might not be able to offer his winter fly-tying classes, either.

But through the prodding of customers and help from tech-savvy family, he opted for the Zoom classes.

“We hooked up a little switching system so I can switch off between three cameras I’m running,” he said.

For $25, customers get a box of high-quality fly-tying materials sent to their home and entry into Sherer’s six-hour class.

He admits things like trying to read customers’ body language or monitor their progress on a screen is tricky, but it seems to work.

After all, Sherer’s shop can use the income.

“How can I put it? There’s not a fly-fishing shop owner that’s on the Forbes list. Never will be,” he said.

But connecting socially with other anglers, even virtually, is also a big deal.

“Getting the revenue stream was important to us. Yeah, we want to be in business next year, too,” Sherer said. “But having the interaction with other like-minded people was also very important.”

Credit Melissa Sovey
Melissa Sovey at the coffee and gift shop she owns in Lake Tomahawk, The Butcher's Wife.

Melissa Sovey is getting used to interacting with customers on a screen, too.

She’s now offering virtual shopping experiences at The Butcher’s Wife, the coffee, gift, and craft shop she owns in Lake Tomahawk.

Credit Melissa Sovey
A look inside The Butcher's Wife in Lake Tomahawk.

“We can do it so you get to walk around the store with me, as if you were right here,” Sovey said “I’ll stop if you want to take a look at puzzles, open this journal, read a part of this book.”

The small, independent shop also just launched a website, something that had been in the works for a while. The pandemic accelerated its go-live date.

“The reason I wanted to start this was more for the locals who would rather shop online, not come in the store,” Sovey said.

Sovey’s new coffee-ordering app has also proven popular for customers looking to limit exposure.

“It’s like getting a tire change in a car race,” she said. “You just kind of peel up to the curb, and we’ll run your drink out to you, and you’re on your way.”

Meanwhile, every Tuesday night on Facebook the Historic Ironwood Theatre invites followers to a brand-new mini-performance from a local artist.

They’re called Ten Minute Tuesdays and feature music performed from the theater’s stage, with no live audience outside of the hundreds or thousands watching online.

According to the theatre, it’s a way of saying “we miss you” to followers while asking for donations to keep the operation running.

Andy Makey's band performs on a recent Ten Minute Tuesday from the Historic Ironwood Theatre.

So many business operators miss seeing their customers in person.

Credit Bill Sherer
A fly created by Bill Sherer.

But, connecting on a screen beats not connecting at all, said Bill Sherer as he tied another fly on Zoom.

“This helps the sport. It helps my fellow anglers. It gives me something to do in the wintertime besides gaining weight, eating M&Ms,” he said with a laugh.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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