The big box stores may have a monopoly on the day after Thanksgiving, but Saturday belonged to downtown La Crosse, with shoppers flocking to local shops for gifts a bit more personal than a big-screen TV.
Downtown Mainstreet Inc., founded in 1990 to reinvigorate La Crosse’s historic central business district, has participated in the national Small Business Saturday movement for seven years, and more than four dozen shops were part of Saturday’s all-day event, offering discounts, refreshments and service with a smile.
“It’s a totally different shopping experience — it’s face to face,” said Adam Wolfe, who co-owns and operates The Toy Shop, on Second St. “My wife and I have personally selected every toy in the store. We’re not just workers wearing a smock; we’re creating the classic toy store. … We can find the perfect gift for every family.”
The selection at The Toy Shop goes beyond Barbies and Batman, with handmade wooden trucks from DK Toys in Sparta and cloth dolls from Pine Valley Market in Madison for sale alongside the classic puzzles and train sets. The shop was bustling with kids and parents for Small Business Saturday, but customers remained courteous and scuffle-free as Wolfe occasionally left the register in the hands of his daughter to help browsing shoppers.
“The service is great,” said Kathy Ingrem, who drove in from Rushford, Minn., for her yearly downtown shopping extravaganza. “(I like) supporting small businesses and the unique things they carry … you just want small businesses to succeed.”
Penny Fassler, owner of Vision of Light Stained Glass on Fourth Street, sees sales pick up every year on Small Business Saturday and was delighted to have one woman cross off her entire Christmas shopping list at her store. Fassler’s delicate glass hangings and figures are one of a kind and handmade by herself and her daughter, giving shoppers the opportunity to support local artists.
“I think people are becoming more aware buying local is just a good thing to do,” Fassler said. “There are so many reasons to shop small, especially when you know all the money from the big box stores is going out of the area. Shopping online even is driving me crazy.”
While around 70 percent of the money spent in local businesses stays in the community, that percentage decreases to 48 percent for chain stores, and web-based shopping has a zero percent return to the city. Many online retailers don’t charge sale tax, which account for 12 percent of taxes collected by local governments and are crucial to downtown infrastructure and growth.
The district has been thriving in recent years, with DMI bestowed with the Great American Main Street Award in 2002 for revitalization efforts and receiving accreditation from the National Main Street Program in 2015. The City Vision 2020 Plan is in place to ensure the ongoing prosperity and popularity of the downtown while maintaining its integrity and charm.
With an influx of both luxury and affordable housing options and lofts in the district, more students and families than ever are living downtown, providing a built-in customer base. Recent flourishing additions to the neighborhood include Duluth Trading Company and the Charmant Hotel, and entrepreneurs continue to open up shop, with more than 80 retailers operating in a several block radius.
Kenzie Thelemann of Holmen was on track to visit at least a fourth of them by day’s end, having set out early for a solid eight hours of shopping. By noon she was on store eight, exploring the tomes at Pearl Street Books.
“I do this every year,” said Thelemann, paging through a book by the front window. The excursion was decidedly more relaxed then her Black Friday outing the previous day.
“Black Friday is like, stressful, and very corporate,” Thelemann said. “This is a lot more fun — it’s a casual experience. There are a lot better gifts.”
While around 70 percent of the money spent in local businesses stays in the community, that percentage decreases to 48 percent for chain stores, and web-based shopping has a zero percent return to the city.