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J&C Trading General Manager Joe-Anne Azzouz talks with Kendra Cline, a second-grade teacher at Lenora Delville School, about school uniforms, although classes are mostly virtual. The company has made merchandise adjustments in the wake of the pandemic, including selling masks sewn by seamstresses on staff.

TORTOLA — Joe-Anne Azzouz was in her sophomore year at BVI High School when her mother Jasmaine and grandfather Khalil Azzouz opened J&C Department Store on Main Street in Road Town.

Opened on Dec. 8, 1978, the store is celebrating 43 years in the British Virgin Islands and continuing to adjust with the ups and downs of retail business. After bouncing back from losses following Hurricane Irma, the company is now facing the economic downturn of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Azzouz, now the general manager, said J&C has gone through different phases since its start as a department store that sold clothing as well as merchandise for the entire home.

In 2003, the store was forced to downsize, selling merchandise from her mother’s Lower Estate home. Two years later, the store expanded to its current location, east of the historic Sunday Morning Well across from Elmore Stoutt High School. J&C now boasts two floors and a staff of 10, and sells merchandise for babies as well as party and school supplies.

Azzouz said she’s been with the business for much of her life, except for a brief period living off-island. Still, she always returned to help during the holidays — always a busy time for the store.

She recalled that her family was the first local business to be recognized by its initials.

“It’s a big thing now — easy to remember,” she said, adding that when the store downsized, and her grandfather passed, the family was able to keep part of the name.

“We couldn’t figure out what to name it since we weren’t a department store, So, J&C became Jasmaine and Children Trading, since we no longer had a department store,” Azzouz said.

Two seamstresses on staff keep up with demand for uniforms for both the territory’s public and private schools. The customary blue and yellow shirts that are part of local school uniforms are custom made and available for purchase.

“That’s where our specialty is and I think that’s where it’s going to be for a while,” Azzouz said.

With classes mostly virtual and the uniforms not much of a necessity, personalized masks have been added to the merchandise list.

Azzouz described going through the pandemic as “interesting” after the island’s borders were shut down and only stores deemed essential were allowed to open.

J&C didn’t make the cut, she said, explaining that while the store wasn’t considered essential “to the consumer, we were essential because we sell baby items” from disposable and cloth diapers to diaper pins and cribs and everything in between.

“We’d have people messaging, ‘I need Pampers’ — and first of all, you can’t leave the hospital without a baby car seat,” she said. “I don’t know where else on island sells them but, J&C sells them, so women were saying ‘I need to get out of the hospital and I need a car seat.’”

Azzouz said there were times the store couldn’t help customers due to the restrictions.

“There were people who called who needed bottles and other baby supplies but we couldn’t do anything because we weren’t given permission, so it was tough,” she said, adding that eventually the store received a temporary clearance to open for four hours a day.

According to Azzouz, there were lessons learned at the height of the pandemic. She’s now working on making that adjustment.

“We don’t have that part of the business where you can shop online,” she explained. “We’ve been getting a lot of feedback that we should go online. We have a Facebook page and Instagram page and that’s where we get a lot of hits, but that in itself is a full-time job — managing social media.”

Azzouz said good customer service and adjusting to the times have been key to staying in business.

She recalled that during the 2017 hurricanes, the store sustained only a broken window and some flooding from the roof, but had some financial losses.

“When Irma came — that was our busy time back to school — so we had a lot of people who had made deposits on uniforms. So, when we eventually opened, we were refunding money because parents had sent their children to places like Guyana or America,” she said. “Those who knew their kids weren’t going anywhere, said ‘hold it until school opens.’”

The store rebounded that December as it was busy with many purchasing gifts, especially for children, for Christmas.

“Things to make you feel good,” Azzouz said of the array of merchandise that included mostly educational toys for young children that were purchased.

This time, she said, it’s the various decorations and masks that are trending.

Although health officials continue to urge social distancing, parties appear to be on the rise and “people want pretty stuff to decorate, so we have a lot of that — balloons and other decorations selling.”

In addition to uniforms, J&C Trading is known for decorations for any occasion. The store has decorations for homes as well as offices.

“We’re not selling the personal items,” she said. “You come and get what you want to make it — all the wreaths, lights and garlands are here for you to take and create your magic.”

Azzouz thanked residents for their patronage over the years, noting that J&C also has been a good corporate citizen. She added that part of the company’s success has come from her mother’s philanthropic efforts.

“She always gives donations — anything to do with schools, if you come to her for a donation, she will oblige,” Azzouz said.

Over the years, J&C has not only donated to local schools but organizations like the Lion’s Club and American Red Cross, she said.