hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News December 2015-January 2016


Amid virtual shopping, real stores find a way

Region’s downtowns tap into growth of buy-local movement


Contributing writer


In the shadow of ever-expanding online and big-box commerce, locally owned businesses are still finding ways to draw customers downtown this year as the holidays draw near.

The attractions vary widely: scrabble lights or Haiku poetry games, fresh arugula in midwinter, the a cappella group singing “Silent Night” outside, or just the chance for shoppers to talk to someone while they search for the perfect gift.

And despite the challenge that online shopping poses, some local entrepreneurs are learning to navigate the digital world and let it work for them.

John Shannahan, executive director of the Better Bennington Corp., which promotes downtown Bennington, said he has seen how the growing “buy local” movement is helping to support local businesses in his community.

In the last five years, the movement has coalesced around events like Small Business Saturday, a nationwide day to encourage people to explore small, locally owned shops. The event fell on Nov. 28 this year, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Bennington held its annual Hometown Holidays celebration that day, with shops open late, carolers, live theater and lights.

As the buy-local movement has grown nationally, Shannahan said, the reach and effect of these kinds of community events has increased. Interviewed in early November, he said he noticed how last year’s Hometown Holidays event attracted local legislators and Select Board members. People wanted to be seen downtown, he said.

Laura Wolf, director of member services at the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, said downtown districts are doing more to draw attention to themselves.

Downtown Pittsfield Inc., a nonprofit that promotes the city as a destination, touts its offerings of everything from vintage clothing to art, she said. And elsewhere in the Berkshires, local chambers of commerce are planning holiday events in early December in Stockbridge, Lenox, Great Barrington, Williamstown and North Adams, filling their town centers with music, lights, live evergreen garlands and horse-drawn carriages.


Downtown revival?
The buy-local movement has highlighted the value of the region’s older, walkable downtowns. In Bennington, Shannahan said people visiting from other parts of the country are impressed.
“People from the Midwest can’t believe there is a downtown here,” he said. “They compare it to Disney World.”

He said he talks with visitors who don’t have town greens; they have cul-de-sacs and box stores.
But downtowns, where they still exist, are being rediscovered: People come looking for the social experience, the coffee shop, pubs and cafés, shared office spaces.

“It’s not about cocooning anymore,” he said.
Town planning and traffic patterns have changed to get away from sprawl and draw people back to the town center.

Shannahan said he has seen the change in attendance at local cultural events. Five years ago, it was hard to get people to come, he said. Recently he has been to several that sold out.

The downtown setting can only help so much, though. Independent merchants still need to make a personal connection with customers.

“You have to have a local connection and surprise people with new things,” explained Michele Gietz, whose Where’d You Get That?! gift shop has been a fixture of Spring Street in Williamstown for 24 years. “People come in from all over the world and say ‘I’ve never seen that.’”

She looks for the quirky and smart, she said, holding up a soot sprite from Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.”

And when people come in looking for gifts, Gietz said she will talk with them about the people they are looking for — what engages them, what they care about.

“You think your 12-year-old is fixated on technology and Legos,” she said, “but that’s not really true.”

Bennington has some local businesses downtown that have run for more than 65 years, Shannahan said. Their main competition comes from the Internet now. Giants like Amazon can sometimes beat them on price, so the shopping experience matters.

“The last thing we want to be is impersonal,” Shannahan said. “I come back to the need to go somewhere and ask somebody, to touch or feel or see before I buy.”

At a men’s store down the street, he said, he can call and ask for a navy blazer and a white shirt, and the owner will know which kind of shirt and what size. He can simply walk in and pick it up.


Staying close to home
Downtown organizations have broad arguments for the value of supporting local businesses. Spend a dollar at a local store, and 85 cents of it will stay in the area, Shannahan said, because the owners will spend it here.

Local businesses also take an interest in the community, Shannahan said.

“You’ve never gone online asking for help with the local football team,” he explained.
But many people have turned to shopping locally for more basic reasons: for the knowledge of local shopkeepers and the quality of what they offer — and for the fun of it.

“People are pleasantly surprised at what you can find here,” Shannahan said. “We have everything from gum to furniture, and people forget that.”

Walking into a local shop offers serendipity, the chance to stumble over something unexpected: homemade Dutch shortbread cookies, perhaps, or a hand-crank ice cream freezer.
“We have the state’s largest arts supply store on Main Street,” Shannahan said, “and two jewelers, one with a year-long wait for design requests.”

At Cake Gallery in Bennington, Meike Williams gently slid a sky-blue stone onto an earring loop. She highlights some 40 artists, artisans and crafters in her gallery. Many of her customers say they shop locally before they go anywhere else, she said.

Although some frazzled shoppers won’t be able to resist the lure of Amazon or big-box stores for very specific items on their gift lists, Wolf pointed out that people can still look locally for many festive touches beyond the gifts -- for candles and ornaments, chocolate and wine, and for the Christmas turkey and the tree.


Connecting arts and commerce
In recent years, many downtown businesses have been cultivating connections with local arts communities.

Shannahan is part of a cultural Bennington group 30 or 40 strong, he said, with sculptors, graphic designers, actors, producers, set designers, dancers. They support local organizations by coming together to arts events, by working creatively in the community and by helping the community to understand how much they do.

Better Bennington organized an arts expo last spring to show the force of art as an economic driver in the area. Art and creative work has been a sub-culture here, he said, and now it is a culture that’s playing a role in downtown and the evolution of Main Street.

Marie Shutts, operations director at the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, said Oldcastle Theatre has been selling tickets to a new audience since it moved downtown a couple of years ago. People see the theater when they come downtown -- and when they come to the theater, they see the downtown.


Finding local online
For shoppers, trying to buy locally brings challenges, especially finding time to search. When a gift idea comes up, how does a motivated local shopper know where to look for it?

Google may not have a clear answer, but Wolf suggested chamber of commerce Web sites can serve as a useful step to finding local shops and offerings. People can shop locally even from home in a snowstorm, she said.

More and more local shops and makers have a presence online as technology like wordpress.org and Squarespace make e-commerce easier.

The Berkshire Visitors Bureau also runs the Berkshire Holiday Auction, a wholly online event in which local places donate items for the exposure. The exposure has already proved useful, Wolf said.

Doris Barsauskas at MacKimmie Co. in Lenox, a home and lifestyles shop focusing on textiles, donated to an earlier auction, and the winner now comes into her store at least once a month and brings friends, Wolf said.

Lenox merchants have started a Shop Lenox initiative with a Facebook page, she added, giving local businesses a place to talk about their latest fire starters or olive oil or roasted coffee beans.
Sally Wilcox, who owns the Paperdilly in Lee with her husband, Doug, also finds Facebook helpful for letting the world know what new stuff is arriving at her store.

“We’ve evolved,” she said. “You have to.”