‘Like an angel fell from the sky’
Bethel woman helps local businesses survive during pandemic
BETHEL — No one is more clued in to the local business scene in town than Genée West.
A project manager for a biotech company by day, during her free moments, West finds herself scrolling through local store notices, restaurant menus, promotions and reviews on her phone. She moderates comments and approves posts. She weeds out those she believes are scammers and uploads photos of delicious meals enjoyed in town.
Since the pandemic began, West has taken on a second job: moderating and running a Facebook page she started in 2020 called Support LocalBethel, CT, which highlights and lifts up the local businesses and restaurants in town. The page, which she originally shared with some local friends on Facebook, blossomed to 100 members overnight, and has ballooned to close to 6,100 members.
Even the town’s first selectman, Matt Knickerbocker, is in the group.
It started, at least in West’s memory, during a trip to the grocery store with her now 18-year-old daughter. It was March 2020. She recalled a pyramid of toilet paper rolls and empty shelves, people loading up on items like their lives depended on it.
“I looked at my daughter and I said, ‘I think you need to mentally prepare yourself for the world getting very weird,’” West said.
She recognized the sense of panic around her, it reminded her a bit of the world immediately post. Sept. 11. And as she watched everything shut down, she thought of the businesses in town that would be affected.
“I didn’t know what to do, I’m just a person like everyone else,” she said.
What she did know was that she wanted the businesses to stick around after the pandemic and realized she could put her social media platforms to good use, reminding people that they could still hit their favorite spots for burgers or breakfast sandwiches. They just had to eat them home instead of out at the restaurant.
She had a vision: a singular place people could turn to for their daily information and news about local offerings. And Shop Local-Bethel was born.
Tech-savvy thanks to a first career in marketing and design that included coding websites (“Genée 1.0” as she calls it), West got to work. She said she had no idea what her initial Facebook page would eventually turn into.
But the page went up and has stayed up, helping to promote local businesses during two difficult years. The impact her work had on the larger community was felt by many— especially the business owners.
“There’s no words I can find that can say what she did for all the restaurants in the area,” said Lou Selmani, owner of Portofino Restaurant and Wine Bar, one of West’s favorite spots.
Selmani didn’t know West prior to her work with local businesses, but got to know her as she made her rounds through the town.
“It’s like an angel fell from the sky,” he said. Shopping local Bethel has spent more than a decade revamping and revitalizing its downtown area to make it more walkable. Having small businesses there to attract visitors has also been essential to that downtown image and economic vitality.
“When you have a thriving downtown, it’s a positive feedback loop,” Knickerbocker said.
Once towns are “hollowed out,” losing their local businesses, it’s difficult to revive the community, he added.
“I’ve seen towns go both ways,” Knickerbocker said. “We want to preserve what we have and make it grow even more.”
Local restaurants and shops run on thin margins as is, and often have to compete for business against larger corporate chains and retailers. A pandemic certainly didn’t help things.
Through her work, West has come to know the local owners on a more personal level. She knows their products and menus, but she also knows their names, families, and personal stories.
A single mom raising two daughters. A restaurant owned by brothers. A brand new owner bravely taking on a business during a pandemic. She visits the restaurants and stores herself, often posting pictures of her meals and the stores, knowing it will generate interest.
“If one of these places closes, it’s more than just a franchise that went under, it’s an entire family that went under,” she said. “If their doors close tomorrow, their entire livelihood is gone. And that’s not something you can get back— not the place and not the jobs.”
West has ties of her own to Bethel’s shops. One of her first jobs was as at Dr. Mike’s Ice Cream Shop back in the nineties. Her daughter is the one behind the counter these days, carrying on the tradition.
David Nussbaum, who bought Dr. Mike’s during the pandemic, said West’s work has been very helpful for business during a difficult time.
“We survived that summer and it got a little bit better this year,” he said.
And West has no intention of phasing the page out when the pandemic finally recedes at some point. Her endgame, as she calls it, is supporting her neighbors and Bethel itself.
“Every town needs something like this,” she said.
Recognizing a local hero
In honor of West’s hard work, every January 3 will be known as Genée West Day in Bethel, an homage to the woman who, during a time of uncertainty and struggle, reached out to her neighbors to see how she could help them. An event on Jan. 3, attended by Knickerbocker and State Rep. Raghib Allie-Brennan (DBethel), highlighted all she has done over the past two years for her town.
In an Instagram story, Allie-Brennan wrote that West and her page had “made a world of difference for so many.”
“Her love for Bethel is evident and demonstrated often,” it continues.
Knickerbocker said he was very grateful for West’s dedication.
“It’s really remarkable,” he said. “She’s done a great job of lending a hand to our community.
West said she doesn’t run the page for recognition, she’s just a resident who cares deeply about her community. She was most happy that her daughter was proud of her that day.
In a Facebook post from Jan. 3, West tried to articulate her thoughts following the event.
“Words are not usually something I'm short on but today my words of gratitude are hard to find,” the post reads. “I only threw a pebble into the pond, but the ripples reached out. The compassionate actions of this community are what has made the biggest difference of all.”