Downtown Astoria kicked off the holiday shopping season over the weekend with several different small business promotions and a lighting of Christmas decorations on Commercial Street.
The festivities started after Thanksgiving with Plaid Friday, a promotion encouraging a more relaxed, checkered shopping experience downtown instead of early Black Friday lines. It crescendoed with carolers and pictures with Santa Claus at the Liberty Theatre on Small Business Saturday.
Sarah Lu Heath, director of the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association, said such events are about making downtown holiday shopping a more enjoyable experience, instead of a competitive ordeal.
“It’s not entirely consumer-driven,” Heath said Saturday. “We probably had 150 people here tonight … and not a dollar was spent. It’s about the magic of Christmas.”
Dulcye Taylor, owner of Old Town Framing Co. and president of the downtown association, saw big crowds Friday with entire families in plaid, making her think the “shop local” campaigns started over the last several years are taking hold.
A recent downtown analysis recommended expanding events to draw more shoppers in the slower seasons around winter.
The Liberty Theatre is offering a free concert by the Columbia River Symphony during next month’s Second Saturday Art Walk, while Paul Caruana is opening the lobby of the John Jacob Astor Hotel building with artist exhibitions, a DJ, drinks and photos with Santa Claus.
At In the Boudoir, owner Sue Allen Clarke had cupcakes and drinks ready Saturday for customers, along with stickers and other merchandise from Small Business Saturday.
Since 2010, American Express has sponsored Small Business Saturday to encourage patronage of small shops hit by the Great Recession.
In the Boudoir has survived amid larger discount retailers by selling what they don’t, Clarke said.
“Even when we opened up almost five years ago, you knew Walmart was going to be here, so you want to make sure you’re not carrying what they’re carrying, because you can’t compete with them,” Clarke said.
Asked what will help her business, Clarke pointed west on Commercial Street toward a long-vacant Flavel family building at the corner of Commercial and Ninth streets, recently purchased and under renovation by Marcus and Michelle Liotta, and toward the Van Dusen Building, recently painted and turned into a headquarters and cooperative workspace for Astoria Maker Industries.
“Once we start filling up the side streets and back streets, that will have an effect,” Clark said, adding the downtown shopping district needs to expand beyond a few blocks on Commercial Street to become more of a destination.
Large retailers have been struggling, closing and shrinking storefronts amid competition from online competitors like Amazon. After more than 100 years in operation, J.C. Penney Co. closed its downtown location in July, leaving many to wonder what will come after.
It’s too soon to gauge the impact of J.C. Penney leaving, but the downtown association is actively looking for another apparel merchandiser to fill the void, Heath said.
“We say that you can get everything that you need downtown, and that was true until J.C. Penney closed,” she said.
The downtown association has encouraged business owners to stay open later for evening shoppers, decorate their storefronts for the holidays and participate in shopping promotions encouraging visits to multiple businesses.
The association’s job is to help businesses network and spread the knowledge of what’s available downtown, Taylor said.
“We’re not in competition,” she said of downtown retailers. “We celebrate new businesses coming into town.”
As retailers pull out of malls and downtowns, opting for more online sales, Taylor sees downtown cores benefiting.
“You’re going to see more people just first looking in their local downtown to see if they can find the thing they want, and then they’ll start going outside,” she said. “The radius will grow and grow, and if they can’t find it, they’ll go online.”