MACHIAS — Machias-area cash registers are ringing in a merrier-than-expected Christmas, this year, despite Scrooge-like reports of lower holiday sales statewide.
Clothing, sporting, gift, jewelry and general merchandise shops appear to be at least equaling, and in many cases exceeding, sales from last Christmas. From the 260-member Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce to owners of more than a dozen stores contacted Thursday, nobody was complaining.
“It’s better than last year,” Janellen Little, owner of the Sow’s Ear on Water Street in Machias, said Thursday. “We’re busy right up to our eye balls. Business has been very good and very steady.”
While some retailers eyed the season with caution, Little went out on a limb and “bought (stocked) ahead for a good season.” According to Little, “I was tired of the gloom and doom so I took a chance.”
Emerging this season, is a trend by local residents to do most, if not all, of their Christmas shopping at home. “A lot of people are staying in town,” Little noted.
Another merchant who admitted taking a chance by ordering a large stock for the season, was Stephen Smith, owner of Smitty’s Trading Post on the Kennebec Road.
“I gambled,” said Smith. “After a slow 1990 I figured it might be a busy 1991, so I stocked heavy.” Smith reported that many of his customers expressed their intention “to do all their shopping locally to help the area businesses.”
Smith expects the season the finish about like last year’s. “Considering the economy, I’m not complaining,” said Smith.
Overall, Smith recorded his “best year ever” in total sales. For Smitty’s Trading Post, that represents 17 years of business. While noting that “more total dollars” were spent by customers in his store this year, his earnings were actually less because of a reduced margin of profit.
“We’re doing fine,” reported Wayne Mallar, owner of Howard’s Men Shop on Main Street. Like Smith and Little, Mallar stated that area customers “want to leave their money here.”
His store “is not fashion oriented,” said Mallar. “We’re into more staple items — socks, underwear.” He believes that area merchants will survive the season. “I don’t think anyone is really suffering.”
Mallar christened the opening of his new Rubicon Playhouse, last week, with a four-night performance of “Catch Me If You Can.” He deemed the playhouse, on the third floor of his store, a success. The 52-seat theater sold out on two nights and had audiences of more than 40 the remaining two nights.
At five and six dollars a ticket, Mallar believes the response to the playhouse shows a willingness by local residents to support home grown businesses and ventures.
“I don’t see us doing more business than last year, but we should end up about even with last year,” Marsha Coffin of Coffin’s True Value said Thursday. She is not, however, disappointed.
Toy shelves have been nearly wiped clean, said Coffin. “We moved them fast.” She added that “a lot of people are looking for sales.”
Jerry Edwards, owner of Down East Five & Ten on Main Street, reported that holiday business at his store “is a little behind” last year’s business. And Christmas 1990 “was down from the year before that,” he added.
Edwards blamed the downward turn to the recent arrival of colder, more stormy weather. He believes that new stores, such as Rich’s in Calais and Sam’s Club in Bangor, may have lured many customers away from Machias.
“Another side,” admitted Edwards, “is that maybe we didn’t stock as much as we should have.” Edwards, like many store owners, ordered his Christmas stock in June.
He hasn’t written the season off yet, however. As he pointed out, “A lot will depend on what happens the next few days.”
Elizabeth Johnson, owner of Johnson Jewelry on Main Street, also pointed to the return of colder weather Tuesday and the storm Wednesday for reversing a shopping season that had been “ahead of last year.” The next few days will also determine how her store fares this holiday season.
According to Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Dianne Tilton “some say it’s (the holiday business) is up and some say it’s down. From our perspective, things look okay.”
Of the MBACC’s 260 members, about 75 are in the retail business. Tilton reported that “many store owners are hearing their customers say `I’m not shopping in Ellsworth or Bangor this year. I’m doing it here.’ If you know where to look, there’s not much you can’t find right here.”
Continuing, Tilton said that “shopping habits have changed.” She believes that many area residents aren’t making the 90-mile trip to Bangor this year because of the added costs of gasoline, meals and even baby sitters. “If the economy is bad,” said Tilton, “it can actually help us.”