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As small businesses struggle, a nursing-uniform company hits its stride

As the pandemic rolled across the country, Margie’s Uniforms joined the mask makers and food delivery services that found themselves essential — and are now preparing for cases to surge again.

Damion Childs, owner of Margie's Uniforms in Atlanta, stands in front of his business alongside his vintage Cadillac Brougham last August. Childs, who is known as “Great Dane,” has been supplying nurses with their uniform needs throughout the pandemic. (Rita Harper for The Washington Post)

For months, Damion Childs stood behind the counter of his medical uniform store, dressed in a hazmat suit with a Bible on the counter, watching nervously as the nurses finished their shifts at Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center South across the street and came in for a change of work clothes.

“The people coming in here … they’re walking in fresh from work,” Childs said of the nurses from the hospital, which treats covid-19 patients. “I might’ve sweated about 10 pounds off during those two months. … It was scary.”

As the pandemic rolled across the country, Childs’s small store, Margie’s Uniforms, joined the maskmakers and food delivery services that found themselves essential — and are now preparing for cases to surge again. Margie’s Uniforms sells an array of medical uniforms, from plain blue tops to floral-patterned scrubs along with some medical equipment, such as stethoscopes.

Fearful of bringing the virus home to their families, many of Childs’ customers burned or threw away their uniforms after every shift and purchased fresh ones before reporting to work again.

“Everybody was panicking and trying to figure out what to do and how to wash their uniforms,” said Tania Seals, 46, an infection-control nurse, who frequented the store in search of the gray uniforms required by her hospital.

While many small business owners, particularly Black-owned companies, have been crushed by the economic fallout from the pandemic, some, like Childs’s, are thriving. The number of Black small-business owners fell from 1.1 million in February to 640,000 by April this year — a 41 percent decline, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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Revenue at Margie’s Uniforms doubled in June as travel nurses, who take temporary assignments out of state on short notice, called in the middle of the night to check on Childs’s inventory of uniforms in specific colors — blue for those headed to New York assignments, black for those heading to Texas.

Some vendors and manufacturers struggled to keep up with demand, forcing Childs to place some items, such as scrub caps, on back order.

The 44-year-old former trucker sometimes hopped into his 1990 white Cadillac Brougham to open up the store in the middle of the night or for 30-minute weekend appointments for scared customers who wanted to try on uniforms over their clothes.

“If you want to get used as a tool, you have to be ready,” he says. “When that phone rings, not only are they in need, they want to look good.”

The crisis created quick friendships, his customers say. Bobby Justice, a 45-year-old nurse at an assisted-living community, said it is often hard to find uniforms to fit his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame. But “he knows me. He knows my sizes, and I don’t feel awkward about asking any questions,” said Justice.

A younger Childs, known as “Great Dane” to his friends, couldn’t have imagined that he’d be running the store started by his mother more than two decades ago. It is a place where gospel music plays in the background and a Bible rests on the counter between him and the customers. Making and performing “party music” was his dream, he said, until he had a daughter in his early 20s and turned to a career in the trucking industry.

His mother, Margie Childs, started the company from a yellow moving truck she drove around the city to meet potential customers and offer her wares at flea market stands before leasing a storefront across the street from the hospital. Childs took over five years ago.

“I knew this was a handful right here just seeing it all my life,” he said, recalling taking the bus to the flea market after school to help his mom. “I knew it was going to have all my attention.”

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With the coronavirus expected to continue surging in the coming months, Childs says he is getting prepared for demand to pick up, especially from travel nurses.

In Georgia, the number of new coronavirus cases rose by more than 42,800 between Dec. 9 and Dec. 16, bringing the state’s overall number of cases since March to 560,619, according to Washington Post data. The state is in a “red zone,” according to a recent White House Coronavirus Task Force report.

To be sure, some of Child’s customers feel more prepared. Seals, the infection-control nurse, now washes her gray uniforms at a professional laundromat where the state’s health agency monitors the water temperature and sanitation of machines.

Childs has also reduced his work attire to a cloth face mask. But he keeps Lysol close by and has customers run their credit card payments themselves to limit physical contact. The four protective suits — three in white and one in blue — are on standby, said Childs. He hopes to launch a website by the end of the year, which would cut down on foot traffic to the store.

On a recent afternoon, Childs says he finds solace in a Bible verse, Job 17:3, seeking God’s protection. “That’s what I do to make my way through the day: Finish with a customer and I read a verse,” he said. “He keeps me with a peace of mind.”