Local merchants gear up for holiday season

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 11/25/10]

Have you finished your holiday shopping yet? Just kidding. Of course, you haven’t.

This weekend marks the official start of the holiday season. Naturally, places like Home Depot and Michael’s began to deck the halls before Labor Day, but for me, the season doesn’t really begin until Santa’s sleigh rolls into Herald Square on Thanksgiving morning.

The next day, another great annual tradition takes place when Americans from coast to coast, still groggy from turkey, rise before the sun to shop ‘til they drop.

The Friday after Thanksgiving – uncomfortably known as “Black Friday,” (or “Buy-Nothing Day” depending on your politics) – is typically the biggest shopping day of the year.

Somewhere between the rampant consumerism bolstered by the national chains and the knee-jerk response of buying nothing at all, there is a sensible middle ground.

Personally, I fall into the buy-nothing camp on Black Friday for two decidedly nonpolitical reasons: 1) Fighting throngs of crazed, overtired shoppers terrifies me (seriously, every year there is at least one story about someone getting trampled); and 2) I typically don’t get around to doing my holiday shopping until Dec. 23 or later.

Stepping outside the box store holiday mayhem for a moment, holiday shopping is another opportunity to support our local economy. Recently, I decided to take some time to find out how local business owners were gearing up for the holiday shopping season.

First, I took a ride up North Main Street to Mr. Twitter’s where owner Becky Rizzi took me on a whirlwind tour of her whimsical and quirky shop. As we moved from room to room, the holiday atmosphere was ubiquitous.

“You’ll find Christmas here,” Rizzi said.

More appropriately, you’ll find many interpretations of the holiday there: From hearty trees adorned with traditional bows and ornaments – what Rizzi calls the “Christmas of your dreams or memories” – to edgier displays like her funky, lime green, Charlie Brown-style tree decked with bright, argyle teddy bears.

As you walk through Mr. Twitter’s it quickly becomes apparent that Rizzi is creating an experience, something she happily confirms, saying, “It’s definitely not just about shopping here.”

This fact is supported by the free samples sprinkled throughout the store. Rizzi puts out a variety of food samples, encouraging her busier customers to visit her during their lunch hours where they can snack while they shop.

Around this time of year, Rizzi and her staff are busy filling wreath and garland orders as well as custom bows and gift baskets. This year, Rizzi is excited to have Deb Eastman (formerly of the eponymous framing and gift basket business) on staff, creating custom gift baskets to order.

In the current economy, Rizzi like all other small business owners is always looking for a way to stand out.

“You need to be the same but also to change,” said Rizzi, who is constantly updating and refreshing the look of the store and its exterior.

“We’re gonna surprise them,” she adds of people’s experience with the store.

For Mr. Twitters – like all businesses with a unique product – the trick is getting people in the door for the first time. “After that, they’re hooked,” Rizzi said.

Down on Merchants Row, Christine Tattersall and Jenn Pattillo of Tattersall’s are also working to get customers across the threshold – no easy task these days, especially when people are not spending as much.

“We’re focusing on affordable accessories this season,” Pattillo said. “The things that people might not buy for themselves.”

Upon entering Tattersall’s those accessories are on full display: bright scarves, mittens and gloves of all types and numerous wool caps – some handmade by Pattillo herself from local products.

With their socially and environmentally responsible mission always in the front of mind, Tattersall notes that people don’t always buy for the sake of buying.

“We offer them something practical – sometimes funky, always functional,” she said echoing the store’s tagline.

Keeping in that practicality, accessories are priced affordably – the all-natural scarves average around $24 apiece.

“It’s quality not quantity,” Pattillo said, stating a maxim that would serve many consumers well to heed this time of year. Indeed, Mike Coppinger, executive director of the Downtown Rutland Partnership, is eager to sing the praises of what local, independent businesses have to offer.

“The cool thing about our downtown is, like most other downtowns, we have a lot of great specialty shops,” he said.

“When you look around, you see a number of great places like Michael’s Toys, Catamount Crafters or Cold River Frames where you can find one of a kind gifts that you won’t find at the chains. It’s a truly unique experience.”

So as you wade into the sea of holiday shopping, remember to take a breath, buy responsibly, and try to keep it local.

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