Downtown Dayton business owner staying calm during challenging time

Now and Zen DIY Studio doing online sales after closing shop during COVID-19 crisis

EDITOR’S NOTE: David Jablonski is profiling people from all walks of life who are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. If you have a story idea, email him at

Paula Willis knows how to keep calm and carry on, as the saying goes. She built the Now and Zen DIY Studio in downtown Dayton from the ground up with her daughter, Alleah Cooks, because they love going to parks and experiencing nature.

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“We just appreciate the importance of being calm and relaxed and grateful,” Willis said.

That’s harder than ever these days. The coronavirus pandemic has upended everyone’s life. Small-business owners are trying to adapt and stay afloat while also staying healthy and hoping for the same for loved ones.

Willis found out Monday two family members — one in Atlanta and one in Mississippi — have tested positive for COVID-19. Both are in their 60s. One worked in a hospital.

“It’s been a hard day for me,” Willis said. “I’ve got to go out and look at some water and trees. It’s getting real, and I knew it was real, but in the past few days, it’s gotten really real.”

Her studio provides an escape from that story of reality. People purchase air plants, succulents and ferns as well as materials — shells, stones, moss, soil, crystals, etc. — to make their own terrarium. Now and Zen also sells glass vessels and orbs where the plants grow. Willis and Cooks assist customers in building the terrariums and also host private events for groups who want to build terrariums together.”

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All of that has been impossible for weeks. Gov. Mike DeWine's stay-at-home order, issued March 15, forced Willis to get creative.

Now and Zen opened as a one-day vendor about six years ago at the 2nd Street Market and took over a permanent spot there a year later. It started doing more and more workshops and needed its own space, so it opened a studio a little over a year ago at 37 S. St. Clair St at the base of the St. Clair Lofts.

The 2nd Street Market closed its doors March 8, Willis said, and she had to close the shop on Sinclair Street a week later. Her main concern right away was paying rent. She doesn’t pay rent at the 2nd Street Market but does on Sinclair Street. She has refund money for several big workshops Now and Zen had scheduled, though several people were generous enough to put their deposits on hold with the expectation of doing a workshop when the crisis has passed.

What has helped Now and Zen is its online Etsy shop, where customers can buy everything from a tabletop Zen garden, perfect for a home office, to a hanging pod air-plant holder. She's also going to begin promoting the sale of do-it-yourself kits, starting as low as $10, with options for kids and adults.

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“We get regular orders from there,” Willis said, “and we saw a big uptick around Christmas, and they didn’t even decline much after Christmas. So we are very blessed that probably our Etsy sales are going to sustain us. That’s good news. That’s kind of where we are. We’re very concerned seeing as what we do, our main business, even though people can walk in and create terrariums, is public workshops and private workshops, which are gatherings. So we don’t know what’s going to happen to our business whenever we can reopen. We don’t know what that’s going to look like.”

The business had thrived so well, Willis and Cooks planned to hire their first employee in early March and had started to explore moving the studio into a larger location.

“We were doing all that in the last week of February,” Willis said. “We were praying. People were coming in. We didn’t have a care in the world. All was good. In 10 days, it turned around.”

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Willis said Now and Zen took on debt last year when she and her daughter opened the studio. They hopes to not take on any more debt because it’s going to be challenging enough getting back on their feet when business returns to normal.

Willis praised the Downtown Dayton Partnership, the Miami Valley Small Business Development Center and the 2nd Street Market for helping Now and Zen through this difficult time.

“They have been extremely on top of it and helping and communicating with resources for small-business people,” she said. “They have been amazing.”

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