Gaston & Catawba

Small, local retailers offer emphasis on customer service, unique items

Although Saturday’s Shop Small program is over, there’s still time to boost the sales of individually owned firms, said Gaston College’s Small Business Center Director Brad Rivers.

The unofficial kick off to the Christmas shopping season began Black Friday at big box chain stores. And shoppers will turn to their computers for Cyber Monday Dec. 1.

But it isn’t too late to make purchases at mom andpop stores that will help boost the local economy, Rivers said.

“Monday morning, they’ll be opened for business as usual,” Rivers said. And it’s important to support them, he added.

“We encourage everyone this holiday season to set aside a portion of their shopping dollars to support local small businesses,” he said. “For every individual hired by these small business, it will help build the tax base of our communities.”

And, he added, if shoppers – like him – are trying to avoid the holiday congestion at malls and other shopping centers, “I find that small businesses typically focus on outstanding customer service and have unique or specialty items that may not be found in larger retail stores.

The Shop Small idea was launched by American Express two years ago to boost the idea of shopping locally and supporting small business, and Gaston College has joined other community college small business centers promote the program.

As a result, consumer spending with independent merchants during the 2013 Small Business Saturday neared $5.7 billion, according to a National Federation of Independent Business survey.

And a forecast by the consulting and financial advising firm Deloitte, US, indicates sales are expected to increase by 4.5 percent this season. Economists also estimate that money spent with independent merchants has three times the impact on local economy that purchases at chain stores do because the funds remain at home.

Supporting local independent businesses, however, is nothing new to area chambers of commerce, according to the Gaston County and Lincoln County chambers.

Spokeswoman Nancy Stokes said the Lincolnton-Lincoln County Chamber has worked for years to promote small business support in the Lincoln’s picturesque and historic county seat.

The independently owned firms clustered around the city’s court square offer a wide variety of shopping opportunities, she said.

“We have a really nice downtown section,” Stokes said. Tucked away in buildings that reflect the historic character of the town are firms such as Highlight’s ladies retail apparel, Lizzie Lu’s Gift Shop and Southern Charm Winery to Salty Petals, a florist and gift show; the Game Swap, that specializes in video games; Umar Art Center, which features crafts and art work created by clients with learning disabilities; and several restaurants and cafes.

And to enhance Lincolnton’s nostalgic ambiance, vendors offers carriage rides through downtown from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday during the holiday shopping season, she said.

“Lincolnton is a fabulous place,” Stokes said. “Why wouldn’t you want to shop at a picturesque place and then have an 80-cent hot dog for lunch at City Café or do your shopping, dinner at one of the restaurants and then take a carriage ride through downtown?”

Suzannne Sanford, who works with Gaston County Chamber of Commerce’s Loyal to Local program, said Gaston County’s dozen cities and towns have much to offer shoppers as well.

The Gaston County Art and History Museum in Dallas, for instance, has a gift shop that offers affordable and unique items. And shoppers looking for women’s clothing and accessories can check out Mattie Mae’s Too in Lowell, Sanford said.

They also could check out specialty stores that have opened in Mount Holly and Belmont, such as My Brother’s Bottle, a Mount Holly specialty wine shop, Rabb’s florist and gift shop and Thrifty Chic’s, which sells gently used designer clothing and accessories, also in Mount Holly.

Gaston towns such as Cherryville have 20- to 50-year-old firms such as Carpenter’s Jewelry, Victoria Cole and Houser Drug that provide an array of gift items as well as friendly service. And, she said, shoppers shouldn’t forget that Gastonia’s Schiele Museum of Natural History has a gift shop that features educational toys that make ideal gifts for youngsters.

And check out Habitat for Humanity’s Restore in Gastonia for whimsical or unique gifts, said store manager Margaret McCray. The store sells items donated by residents that the local Habitat for Humanity invests in building homes for low-income residents.

Combing through boxes of donations is like having “Christmas every day,” McCray said. “You never know what they contain.”

Frequently, they contain collectibles, said Beryl Campbell, who draws on her background as former owner of an antiques mall, to select vintage items and showcase them for sale in the Habitat Restore.

She and McCray were delighted to pull out a circa 1957 Temple of Health certificate of completion signed by Charles Atlas they believed would make a whimsical gift for a modern-day fitness devotee who spends hours pumping iron in a gym.

Also available in the vintage item showcase was a bonsai tree fashioned from delicate colored glass, pieces of iridescent carnival glass that have become popular collectibles, and Janet, one of only 5,000 dolls produced by a Chinese manufacturer for worldwide distribution.

“If you come here, you can spend less money, buy something that lasts and help a good cause at the same time,” Campbell said.

In downtown Gastonia, entrepreneur Merryman Cassels said she is pleased that The Hive, which she launched in late August, is helping her achieve her dream of showcasing the work of local artisans.

The business stages events where artists can exhibit their work and offers gift items such as leather-bound journals, elegant stationery, children’s books, and art objects – plus gift certificate to attend classes artisans teach at the establishment.

Cassels, who designs and handcrafts jewelry, said her love of art drew her to open The Hive as a place of creativity where people can gather, get to know artists and their work.

“Rissie” Bryan, who had dropped by Cassells’ firm early last week, said she is overjoyed to have such a place in downtown Gastonia, where you park in front an spend time browsing through racks of greeting cards, handmade paper products and beautiful calendars.

“I love to come here,” Bryant said. “Merryman has the most creative and interesting items that I can’t find anywhere else.”