Buyers stayed near home

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer January 02, 2013 09:03 am

With the help of Mountain Works employee Matt Hibbert, right, Terry Blankenship of Summerville picks up a couple of bikes he left for the La Grande outdoor sports business to get back in quality riding shape. Mountain Works owner Whit Hartz said many holiday shoppers came in to buy smaller accessory items, while bike sales were mostly slow. On the plus side during the season, Hartz said the store did good business in gift certificates, and also saw a late surge of bike sales. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
With the help of Mountain Works employee Matt Hibbert, right, Terry Blankenship of Summerville picks up a couple of bikes he left for the La Grande outdoor sports business to get back in quality riding shape. Mountain Works owner Whit Hartz said many holiday shoppers came in to buy smaller accessory items, while bike sales were mostly slow. On the plus side during the season, Hartz said the store did good business in gift certificates, and also saw a late surge of bike sales. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer

La Grande area residents were shopping local and were in a mood to spend money this holiday season, according to an informal — very informal — survey of a few businesses in downtown La Grande.

Three of four small, independently owned shops on Adams Avenue said the season lived up to or exceeded expectations. The fourth said sales lagged behind, but were respectable all the same. 

“Not complaining, but our sales weren’t as good as last year. We sold a lot of small items, did a lot of volume, but not many bicycles,” said Whit Hartz, owner of the Mountain Works store that deals in bikes and accessories, cross country skis and outdoor gear.

Hartz added, though, that during the final days of the season there was a moderate surge in bicycle sales. Also, he said the store sold a fair number of gift certificates for snowboard repair that were redeemed over the shopping season. 

A short distance west on Adams, Sharon Porter said she was impressed with foot traffic during her first Christmas as owner of the Blue Turtle Gallery. Porter said business stared picking up the last two weeks of November and only got better.

 “Our sales were brisk. I used 1,000 shopping bags in a month,” she said.

The Blue Turtle sells arts and crafts items made only by people in northeast Oregon, Porter said that’s a draw during the Christmas season. 

“Almost everybody who comes in says they’re here because they want to buy local. And then there’s the fact that everything in here is unique. It’s not stuff that mass-produced for a big box store,” she said.

She said it often happened that a Christmas shopper came in looking for a work by a specific artist. Steve Schlesener’s metal sculptures sold well, as did the whimsical items Jeanine Gekeler makes from recycled materials on her farm. Susan Collett’s jewelry saw brisk sales as well.

“We sold jewelry, jewelry and more jewelry,” Porter said, adding that items made by copper and steel artists were popular as well.

Another Adams Avenue shop reporting better-than average holiday sales was Bella, a store selling gifts for the home including the latest in kitchen appliances, dishes and utensils, food, wine, and more.

The store on Adams is one of two Bellas stores owned by Beverly Calder of Baker City. The other is in Baker City. Margaret Edvalson, assistant manager of the La Grande outlet, said Christmas sales this year outpaced last year’s.

“It was wonderful, there were lots of people deciding to shop downtown,” Edvalson said. “I tried as much as I could to thank them. If they had big bags, I walked them out to the car.”

Edvalson said husbands Christmas shopping for wives are key customers at Bella. Things like pans and appliances and kitchen towels were big sellers this year. 

Still further west on Adams, Jenny Bartell took stock of a Christmas season that for her was baptism by fire. Bartell opened her Community Merchants store Dec. 1, so this Christmas was her first as an Adams Avenue business owner.

“I think it was great to hit the holiday rush. I just wish I could have opened sooner because people are finding out about the store late,” she said.

Community Merchants, like the Blue Turtle, sells locally made gift items. Bartell said the calendars, jewelry and doll dresses made by area artists sold especially well.

“I had great traffic and lots of excitement about a new store. It seemed to go really good, though I don’t have anything to compare it to,” Bartell said.