The Lemont Block Collective Holiday Craft Pop-Up, formerly home to Wyler’s, is housing eight local artisans and one business this holiday shopping season. Courtesy of Aaron Turkel

BRUNSWICK — As the executive director of the Brunswick Downtown Association, Deborah King has spent years encouraging people to shop local, but this holiday season, as local retailers struggle under the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a renewed sense of urgency.

“It’s important to keep the lights on,” she said. 

With the approach of Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, traditional gatekeepers of the holiday shopping season, downtown business owners are hoping for a sorely needed boost in revenue. 

Historically, Brunswick has kicked off the season with a huge downtown event drawing between 1,000 and 1,500 people, featuring a visit from Santa Claus, carriage rides, hot chocolate, Christmas cookies and shopping deals capped off with the annual tree lighting ceremony. 

However, with gathering restrictions in place to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, many of those events have been canceled or gone virtual.

With the absence of the usual crowds, the downtown association has ramped up the holiday light display with the hopes that it will draw people downtown in a more manageable way, King said. 

“We need to bring some joy and some sense of homecoming and hope for everybody,” she said. “We hope that by having such a beautiful light display it will attract folks downtown.”

Once they’re there, she hopes they’ll stop for a coffee or a gift, something to boost struggling businesses.

“Everyone has been impacted by the pandemic, but in different ways,” she said.

For those lucky enough to still have gainful employment, and for those who may be saving money by not going on holiday vacations, “with that little bit of extra money you may have, please consider supporting local businesses and nonprofits,” she said. “They give back so much to the community. … This is our time to reciprocate that.”

A 2019 report from the U.S. Small Business Administration found that small businesses create two-thirds of net new jobs and account for 44% of U.S. economic activity. 

According to the 2020 small business profile of Maine (compiled just a few months into the pandemic), small businesses account for 99.2% of Maine businesses (149,355) and 57.2% of Maine employees (293,872). 

Despite the hard times, King said she is seeing “cautious optimism” among many downtown business owners.

According to Dustan Larsen, who co-owns Hatch on Maine with business partner Hannah Beattie, “things have gone as well as they possibly could have gone.” 

The past nine months, especially the mandated closure for much of the spring, have been challenging and they have not done the same amount of business as they normally would, but really “we’re grateful we’re still here,” she said. 

Their success is largely thanks to loyal customers and a supportive community, she said, adding that she hopes the support continues into the next several months and beyond. 

“My hopes are that people remember how important it is to shop locally if you want a vibrant and healthy downtown,” Larsen said. “We are willing to do almost anything for our customers. We will bend over backwards to accommodate people.” 

The limitations of the pandemic pushed the owners of Hatch and many others to launch websites for people who may not yet be ready to shop in brick and mortar stores, something Larsen and King both said they hope shoppers will remember before heading for Amazon.

Nikiline Iacono, owner of Vessel and Vine, also found ways to adapt when faced with change. 

Formerly just a small part of her cocktail lounge, retail became her primary focus, and now the shop is a successful beer, wine and cheese specialty store offering small bar and dining-focused gifts. 

“The community needed this and (the pandemic) was a push for me to make it happen,” Iacono said. 

She doesn’t know what to expect from the holiday season, as this is the first year in the new business model, but she said she hopes people will spread out their holiday shopping and patronize their local businesses. 

“It keeps the money flowing in the community,” she said. “From an economic perspective, the money spent in a small business goes back into the community … and will lift the state and keep us alive in a really hard time.” 

According to credit card company American Express, the name behind the Small Business Saturday movement, for every dollar spent at a small business, approximately 67 cents stays in the local community. 

This year, a few classic downtown shopping spots — Wyler’s, Timeless Cottage and Maine Street Sweets — will be noticeably absent, their departures from Maine Street partly hastened by the coronavirus. 

Aaron Turkel, owner of the Lemont Block (more commonly known as the Wyler’s Building) is hoping that absence will be filled, at least in part, by a new pop up running through the holiday season. 

The Lemont Block Holiday Collective is a collection of eight local artists–Pretty Flours by Molly Thompson, Catherine Worthington Art, Tandem Glass, Thread Tree Gifts, Amy Smith of Blue Feet Studio, Rebecca May Verrill, Liz Prescott, Beth Thompson–and one business, Portland-based GoGo Refill and serves as “a rallying call to those who care about our vibrant community culture.” 

Like the storefronts, artisans also suffered from the pandemic with the cancellation of holiday craft fairs, a “megaphone” for exposure that many counted on, Turkel said.

Giving them a spot to set up shop and sell their wares while also filling a vacant space on Maine Street was a win-win. 

“People have the power to choose who they want to support,” and right now supporting local businesses is “critically important,” he said. “Now is the time to rally around Maine businesses, those who bring us our essential services and those who delight us.”

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