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'They are the lifeblood': Small Business Saturday perks up Ashland shopping

Small Business Saturday was a shot in the arm for many Ashland businesses struggling with the effects of the pandemic. Empty parking spots downtown were few and far between as shoppers in a holiday mood ventured out on a nippy but sunny day.

The annual “Shop Small” promotion, launched by American Express in 2010 in the midst of the recession, focuses on independent businesses. But these days, hometown retailers need a Small Business Every Day public mindset to survive.

There are signs of resilience in the local business community, despite recent setbacks. An active “Shop Local” campaign by the chamber of commerce, creativity on the part of retailers, and shoppers showing their loyalty and support all have played a role in bolstering local business.

While many businesses have struggled during the pandemic, others have seen sales equal or exceed levels of previous years.

“We’re on par with last year,” said Richard Hansen, owner of Gold & Gems. “People are still spending money.” He says the store’s web sales have become a substantial part of its business, reflecting a trend toward more online shopping.

In contrast, Art FX’s website is more a promotional arm of the business, helping to produce in-store sales.

“Our November set a record for Novembers,” said Jeffe Troutman, goldsmith at Art FX. “I think during these times when people do decide to come out, they come out to buy rather than to browse. Also, people are trying to find a little joy in their life.”

Deena Branson of Branson’s Chocolates echoed Troutman’s comments.

“Traffic is a little down,” she said, “but people are spending more.”

Like most businesses, Branson’s has learned to be nimble in the way it serves customers.

“We also sell off our website,” Branson said. “People place orders for curbside pickup, or to pick up in-store, or to be shipped.”

While a clerk was helping customers in the Manzanita Home & Flowers Saturday, owner LouAnn David was putting together a floral arrangement in the back of the shop.

“People are really making an effort to support local businesses,” she said. “Our Thanksgiving flower business was really good. People sent flowers and arrangements to keep in touch with friends and loved ones.”

Manzanita has a website, but you can’t make purchases on it. “We invite people to call us for orders. I’d rather talk to them in person,” David said.

Pampering can be therapy during tough times, and that undoubtedly benefits businesses like Manzanita.

“Although we sell lots of things that are useful, we also have things that lift spirits and make people smile,” David said.

The Ashland Chamber’s “Love Ashland Local” campaign uses a new website, shopashlandoregon.com where local businesses can feature their products, with links to their own sites. It even has a wish list component where people can leave gift ideas.

“I want to commend the chamber for its shop local online campaign,” said Ashland resident Karen Spence. “I found two surprises on the website that I added to my gift list and picked up in-store.”

She says she always prefers to shop locally.

“This year, I’ve already shopped for my Christmas list at Art FX, Ashland Greenhouses, Branson’s Chocolates, the Grange Co-op, Bloomsbury Books, The Culinarium, Paddington Station, The Crown Jewel, Funagain Games, and the Book Exchange.”

Andrea Shapiro of Ashland says she shops locally because she likes the personalized attention.

Priscilla Arnold says it has been difficult to see some of the stores close.

“I plan to go to Northwest Nature Shop and Bloomsbury Books for the grandkids,” she said. “And we have seven grandsons!”

Susan Sullivan says she shops locally whenever possible.

“I love this town,” the Ashland resident said, “and I want to do everything I can to support it economically.”

She said she buys her birdseed at Northwest Nature Shop and cards and children’s gifts at Paddington Station.

“And I have an appointment to purchase gifts at the Tudor Guild shop,” Sullivan said. “Eileen Polk, the manager, will make appointments for anyone when she is there on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays.”

Martha Howard-Bullen says she shops locally because it’s part of belonging to a community.

“Over the years, I have gotten to know and appreciate the people who own and work in our small businesses,” she said. “They are the lifeblood of our small town.”

Another Ashland resident, Susan Roudebush, says she likes to support local artists and craftspeople.

“I will miss holiday shopping at the Ashland Art Center this year,” she said. “Traditionally, it has been my go-to for gifts.”

Nancy Clark shops locally to support local folks who live nearby.

“I love shopping in Ashland,” she said. “There’s no need to get out on the highway and you’re able to find all you need.

“We all want these businesses to remain healthy as we come back to life after the pandemic,” Clark said. “It benefits the viability of the whole town in the end.”

David Bryant and Mary Zarc of Ashland say local retailers and boutiques are part of what they call the “Ashland milieu.”

“Most are consistently friendly and helpful,” Bryant said. “Ace Hardware comes to mind.”

“We love our town and the stores are a part of it,” Zarc added. “We especially like Unique Boutique, Antique Emporium, and Ashland Recycled Furniture.”

Grace Ladygo of Ashland put it succinctly:

“Picture downtown without our unique shops,” she said. “This will be the reality if we don’t support them.”

Businesses which rely on tourists for a big part of their income have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Depending on the month, business was down 50-80% at Winchester Inn and its restaurant, Alchemy.

“People used to stay five to seven days,” said Rebecca Doran, general manager. “Now it’s one to three days.”

Reservations often were made a year in advance when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was operating.

“Now we’re getting more last-minute bookings—a week ahead, a few days, or even the day of,” she said. “We’re getting more stop-overs of people on their way north or south.”

This summer the tourists were younger.

“We’ve seen more hikers, sporty types,” she said. “Some are discovering Ashland for the first time.”

The restaurant, a fine dining establishment, also has been hit hard by the pandemic.

“Alchemy is not the kind of place where takeout works so well,” Doran said. “And shorter stays at the Inn affect the restaurant business too.”

Winchester is getting creative about trying to boost business.

“One of the things we’re doing is turning the parlor (one of the restaurant’s dining rooms) into a gift shop,” she said. “We’ve always had a small gift area, but we’re expanding in hopes of doing good Christmas business.” She says they hope to have it ready for business by Dec. 2.

Bayberry Inn owner Francesca Amery says she is optimistic, despite the difficulties thrust upon the lodging business during the pandemic.

“Ashland is so great,” she said. “It’s got so many things going for it.”

She’s noticed a different kind of tourist as well—people who can work remotely and can treat themselves to short stays away from home where there is good Wi-Fi to stay connected.

Amery is a staunch Ashland supporter and her knowledge of and enthusiasm for things to do in the area often result in visitors staying an additional night or two.

“I help hikers get trail maps, tell people about our great restaurants, and talk up the wineries.”

Bayberry has private entrances and several outdoor spaces. That’s been an advantage during pandemic restrictions, she said.

Although Oregon doesn’t have a retail sales tax, there are other ways to gauge business trends, said Adam Hanks, Ashland interim city manager. He cites revenue from the city’s lodging tax and food and beverage tax as examples.

Lodging tax revenues for fiscal year 2019-20, ending June 30, were down 27% to about $2.2 million from $3.1 million the previous year. Food and beverage taxes were down about the same.

The city is trying to support local businesses, he said, by sharing information about the changing demographics of Ashland visitors.

“We want to help them adapt and better position themselves,” he said.

This summer the city cooperated in closing off the downtown plaza area for outdoor dining, perking up downtown traffic.

“We’ve spent some money,” Hanks said. “And, generally, we have been in a support mode.”

Another way people can support local business is by purchasing gift certificates. They’re available from most local businesses as well as through the chamber at ashlandchamber.com.

A sign in a small bookstore featured on the news the other night summed up the shop-at-home argument: “Buy books from people who want to sell books, not colonize the moon.”

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Winchester Inn is transforming the parlor, a dining room in its Alchemy Restaurant, into a gift shop to boost business, scheduled to open Dec. 2. Above, co-owner Laurie Gibbs (on ladder) and assistant general manager Rachel Benzschawel decorate the walls for the holidays. (Jim Flint photo)