Local merchants report business ranges from good to less-than-fair

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer December 23, 2009 02:33 pm

The tiny remote-controlled helicopter being flown here by Dave Campbell has spurred holiday sales at the Hobby Habit. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH At Christmas time, toys are a good business to be in. Maybe the best. Just ask Dave Campbell, owner of the Hobby Habit on Fir Street in La Grande.

Among several downtown merchants taking part in an informal survey this week about holiday season sales, Campbell was the most upbeat.

“Business has been phenomenal,” he said. “It’s been busy since Thanksgiving, with a whole lot of folks coming in. It’s been a good year.”

Campbell, who has run his store at the same location for 26 years, doesn’t traffic in big-ticket electronic games. He’s happy to leave that to others.

At the Hobby Habit, customers come looking for board games, Lego products, model trains, radio-controlled cars, airplanes and helicopters, and plenty of other toys long on entertainment but short on high-tech video circuitry.

This year, one of the hottest products in the store is a tiny, remote-controlled helicopter that sounds a little like a hummingbird when it takes off. It lifts, hovers, flies forward and back, and turns left and right on a dime.

The price? About $100, and people have been buying it left and right.

“They’ve really been selling well,” Campbell said as he took controller in hand and gave an impromptu flight demonstration.

Besides the little helicopters, board games and Lego toys are big sellers at the Hobby Habit this year. That follows the usual Christmas-time pattern, Campbell said.

He said he hasn’t stopped to look at the store’s bottom line in the past few days, but knows he’s doing better than OK for the holiday season.

“We’re ahead of last year. The last time I looked, we were up about seven percent,” he said.

Elsewhere in downtown La Grande, it didn’t appear anyone was set to break business records. Merchants reported conditions ranging from good to less-than-fair.

Kelly McGee, owner of Marie Josephine — A Mercantile, on Adams Avenue, said business fell off around the first of November, but picked up again just before Thanksgiving. She said she is satisfied enough with the improvement.

“It’s almost as good as last year. I’m a little down, but not much,” she said.

McGee sells a variety of gift and home decor items, furniture and clothing. Some of her merchandise is produced by local artists and craftspeople, while more is made in impoverished countries and sold via the “Fair Trade” network.

Fair Trade retailers help workers in Third World countries get a good price for the things they make. McGee said the idea appeals to many of her customers.

“They’re buying with a conscience. They’re supporting our Fair Trade and eco-friendly goods,” she said.

McGee said the uptick in holiday business has held steady through December, though people coming through the door seem to be thriftier than usual.

“They’re price-conscious. People are going more for stuff under $50,” she said.

Thrift seems to be the story also at the Mountain Works bike shop across Adams Avenue from Marie Josephine.

Kim Metlin, one of the store’s owners, said sales of bike accessories and clothing have been brisk. On the other hand, not many people are buying bikes to give as Christmas presents.

“That’s not to say people have stopped buying bikes. But when they are buying them, they’re buying for themselves and not as gifts,” Metlin said.

Overall, Metlin said holiday sales are down a bit from last year. But that’s not to say business is flat-out bad.

“It’s nothing like a disaster,” he said. “We’ve had wonderful people, and modest sales.”

West along Adams at Whispering Pines Bed and Bath, Julie Makinen said this year’s holiday sales are lagging behind last season’s. There are some bright spots, however.

Makinen’s products include soaps and a Shea butter blend for skin moisturizing, and essential oils and essential oil candles, all made or blended in-store.

Like McGee, Makinen carries Fair Trade goods. Shea butter, for instance, is extracted from the Shea tree in Africa.

Makinen said holiday shoppers seem to like her in-store items best.

“The stuff we make is the stuff that’s selling,” she said.