EVANSVILLE — Shelley Meredith was a little hurried when I met up with her last week at the business she manages in this city’s quaint downtown.
Christmas can do that to a retailer.
Meredith doesn’t sell flat-screen televisions, peddle iPhones or have aisles of board games and toys.
But that doesn’t mean this time of the year is laid back or not important to the bottom line. The Hometown Pharmacy she manages is a gift shop, a place to buy cards, home décor items and holiday decorations for all seasons.
Located in the Grange Store building, constructed in 1903, there’s also a small women’s fashion department and, of course, it’s a place to fill a prescription.
“This is where you find niche, in your small town,” Meredith said. “You really have to understand your community.”
Stores here and in most other downtowns in the state won’t be open at midnight for Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving — nor will shoppers set up lines of tents in order to grab a deep discount on a laptop computer.
Instead, it’s more about community and finding ways to draw customers to the downtown. Once there, they can be introduced to shopping and dining opportunities and hopefully return at other times of the year.
That’s why Evansville is kicking off the holiday shopping season a little earlier than most with its Old Fashioned Christmas.
The setting is ideal. The downtown features a brick-paved Main Street and historic buildings that will be trimmed for the season. The district features shops, restaurants, a coffee shop and is the home of artisans. Events on Friday include free horse-drawn carriage rides; a Main Street Stroll, where visitors can vote on the best decorated store fronts; and a bon fire. On Saturday, Santa Claus arrives downtown on a fire truck.
“That type of unique experience is what brings people downtown,” said Mary Rajek, executive director of the Evansville Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re really an experience location.”
Running a successful downtown business might be one of the toughest tasks in retailing. The location, however, can offer amenities that are tough to replicate at a shopping mall or a big-box retailer.
Mineral Point, one of the state’s oldest communities, may do one of the best jobs of creating a Norman Rockwell-type experience. On Dec. 1, hundreds of luminaria, roasted chestnuts, carolers and fresh evergreens hanging from lamp posts and facades set the stage for the annual Candlelit Gallery Night and Shopping.
In Sauk City, there will be fireworks, a tree lighting and a parade this Friday, while on Saturday, a parade will wrap around the square in Baraboo and conclude with a tree lighting. The downtown Baraboo businesses will also have their own version of Black Friday with 20 local businesses taking part in special sales from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Nov. 23.
In my hometown of Watertown, the Krier’s Store for Men, Kern’s Men’s Store, Fischer’s Department Store, Kline’s and Kresge’s have all disappeared. Keck Furniture and Brown’s Shoe Fit Co. remain, and Generation Jewelers, founded in 1907, has added wine. Most of what I remember from 30 years ago is gone. The historic, cream-colored brick buildings are now filled with new niche retailers and restaurants.
On Nov. 24, the Watertown Chamber of Commerce will hold “Small Business Saturday,” an event designed to draw shoppers to the downtown. The day concludes with the Holiday of Lights parade. More than 2,000 people could attend.
“The streets are full. It really is a nice event,” said Susan Dascenzo, executive director of the Watertown Chamber. “I think we have a nice diverse downtown. Could they be doing better, yes, but I think they’re hanging in there.”
The downtown events aren’t reserved for small and medium-sized communities. The Madison Central Business improvement District will hold its fifth annual Downtown Holiday Open House this month. The event, highlighting shopping, dining and entertainment destinations, has been expanded to two days and begins Friday on State Street and the Capitol Square.
In Evansville, this is the ninth year of kicking off the holidays prior to Thanksgiving and Rajek is seeing signs for optimism for the downtown’s economic health.
“It’s getting better,” Rajek said. “It’s been wheezing with the recession, but it’s been a good growth year.”
One of the newest additions to the downtown is the Artful Gourmet. The shop opened in August, seven weeks after owners Sue and Duane Nettum stumbled across a vacant but clean space in an 1860s building.
The 900-square-foot store features kitchen gadgets, spices, pasta and sauces and is fashioned after something you might find in Galena, Ill., or on Monroe Street in Madison. Sue Nettum said they rushed their opening in August to take advantage of the city-wide garage sale event and they’re hoping the upcoming Old Fashioned Christmas will also create business.
“A few more shoppers would be really nice,” she said.
And that’s what it’s all about.
Barry Adams covers regional news for the State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.