Two members of President Obama’s Cabinet came to Portland on Saturday to do a little Christmas shopping and generate publicity for the administration’s effort to encourage Americans to shop locally.

Jeanne Hulit, acting administrator of the Small Business Administration, and Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, bought books at Longfellow Books, which was packed with customers.

Hulit, who lives in Falmouth, said the public needs to support small businesses because they’re vital to the economic health of cities and towns.

“We want our communities and neighborhoods to stay vibrant,” she said while carrying an armful of books and heading to the cash register at the bookstore on Monument Square.

She said every member of the Cabinet was shopping locally on Saturday, which was being promoted as Small Business Saturday nationwide. In Washington, Obama visited a local bookstore with his daughters. It was the third year in a row in which he had gone to a local bookstore.

First observed three years ago, Small Business Saturday is intended as a counterweight to Black Friday, the marketing creation of big-box retailers and shopping malls, and Cyber Monday, its e-commerce equivalent.

Small Business Saturday encourages holiday shoppers to patronize stores that are small and local.

BOOSTING THE LOCAL ECONOMY

A 2004 study of a Chicago neighborhood found that spending $100 in a neighborhood store or restaurant generates $68 in additional economic activity locally, while spending $100 at a chain business produces only $43 of local economic activity.

Still, the growth of national chains continues to outpace small businesses. According to another study by the same firm, Civics Economics, market share for local retailers nationally declined from 59 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2009.

Since 2010, Small Business Saturday has been promoted by American Express via a radio and television advertising campaign and social media. During last year’s event, nearly 70 million customers spent $5.5 billion nationwide at small, independent stores, according to an estimate by the Small Business Administration.

McCarthy, who lives in Boston, said she has traveled by train to Portland every December for the past 10 years to eat at local restaurants and buy Christmas gifts for her family and friends.

She said Maine’s strong buy-local movement has created an attractive retail and restaurant scene.

“You have unique gifts and great food you can’t find anywhere else,” she said.

However, shopping locally is not about money – it’s about connecting with other people, said Joan Leitzer, 66, a Portland psychiatrist who on Saturday was shopping at Longfellow Books.

“This is a place that fosters community,” she said. “If you go online, it’s a totally anonymous experience.”

Business was brisk in other shops in downtown Portland on Saturday.

Marie Stewart, manager at Lisa-Marie’s Made in Maine on Exchange Street, said there was a noticeable increase in traffic this year on Small Business Saturday and also on Black Friday. Her shop carries crafts, jewelry and artwork made by Maine craftsmen and artists.

“It’s what tourists want. They don’t want something made in China,” she said.

Maria Antonieta, owner of Maria Antonieta Couture on Free Street, said the made-in-Maine brand is powerful because consumers associate it with quality.

Families with tight budgets shop at chain stores like Walmart, where products are less expensive, she said. But families with discretionary income like to spend their money locally on quality goods, said Antonieta, who makes custom and ready-to-wear women’s clothing.

“People are looking for quality,” she said, “and they think that anything made in Maine must be good.”

Also at Longfellow Books on Saturday, a new business called Buoy Local was launched and sold more than $4,000 in gift cards that can be redeemed at more than 30 independent businesses in Portland, said Sean Sullivan, a co-founder.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

Twitter: TomBellPortland