‘Downtown is open’: Communities, merchants serving up special sights, sounds for the season

In recent years, “buy local” campaigns have helped lure shoppers back to Main Streets and mom-and-pop shops.

But beyond keeping money in the community, shopping local in Centre County offers its own reward — a comforting contrast to the solitude of shopping online in the wee hours of the morning.

“I think, in our area, most people do like the downtowns — Bellefonte, Boalsburg, State College,” said Betsey Howell, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“They all offer something different,” she said. “I enjoy looking to see what all the little shops have, and it’s not necessarily what you’re going to find online.”

To enhance the downtown experience, local communities plan events and attractions to help put visitors in the holiday spirit.

Shoppers often find the experience provides a chance to share time with others while taking care of that seasonal shopping.

“You get that personal service, and then there’s the social aspect of it,” Howell said. “Maybe you’re out shopping with your friends. While you’re out, you get a bite to eat together.”

Downtown State College: Shopping, making memories

Merchants in downtown State College are trying to highlight the area’s charm for customers who want shopping to be more than checking off items on a gift list, said George Arnold, executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District.

“The one thing we’ve heard this year from the retailers is, ‘We want to do Christmas bigger downtown,’ ” Arnold said.

The organization has set aside funding to make the streets more festive, so visitors can expect to see more sparkle with increased holiday lights and décor. Annual events, such as the Downtown Tree Lighting Ceremony and the Polar Express, are designed to help families enjoy a downtown excursion, too, Arnold said.

Retailers use the events as opportunities to reach crowds by offering holiday promotions, so it’s an ideal time to bag a deal.

“And it’s a chance to make a memory,” he added.

At The Animal Kingdom along South Allen Street, a holiday setting at the shop, well-known to some for its jumbo Elmo, will be in full force from Black Friday through the rest of the season.

A chance to chat with store owners who know first-hand the nuances of each stuffed animal or eco-friendly toy is a refreshing change from some shopping experiences, said Lindsay Williamson, who owns and operates the store with her husband Jason.

“We have a 21/2-year-old as product manager,” Williamson said of her daughter. “If it doesn’t work at home in real life, we don’t carry it in the store. People love to hear that we know what we’re talking about.”

Of course, shoppers could choose to browse online for items such as Boo, the “world’s cutest dog,” but it’s in a store that they can literally grasp the popular toy Pomeranian’s appeal.

“People like that touchable experience,” Williamson said.

Carrying cups of mulled cider or hot chocolate from the tree-lighting ceremony, shoppers can step into boutiques such as Dwellings along East College Avenue, where burning candles in cozy scents offer a warming atmosphere to browse potential gifts for “fashion-forward” recipients.

“It’s all about the experience,” Dwellings store manager Matthew Lannan said. “I think you get a true sense of the holidays when you’re downtown. You get the cold air, the decorations, the little shops.”

Stephen Miska, at Miska Jewelers, said he’s looking forward to seeing familiar faces this season, and hopefully meeting some new folks through an increased push to spruce up downtown.

“Throughout the year, a lot of friendships are developed,” he said. “I think more decorations definitely will help. Downtown could use a little more of that. It’s an important time of the year for all of us retailers.”

Miska said store employees try to have snacks and drinks for those looking to shop and socialize at the same time, and for those who want a hands-on experience.

“I think people like to touch things, to hold things, before they buy,” he said. “A majority of our businesses are very personal. It’s all the ‘buy local, eat local.’ I think it all trickles down, and people are taking that to stores like our jewelry store, clothing stores and all these independent places downtown.

“The interesting thing is, when out-of-town people come to downtown State College, they talk about how lucky we are to have this. And I agree.”

Downtown Bellefonte: A Victorian tradition

For many, the wonder of stepping back in time is enough to draw whole families to bustling shops in Bellefonte, year after year.

“There are so many activities for Victorian Christmas,” said Gary V. Hoover, Bellefonte Intervalley Chamber of Commerce’s executive director. “We bring in a Dickens troupe, caroling, people walking the streets, arts and crafts and foods.”

Victorian Christmas is set for Dec. 13-15.

“It brings a lot of people downtown,” Hoover said. “It’s a direct benefit to the merchants and restaurants, and shoppers get a chance to see a lot of ideas.”

Many merchants plan their specials around the annual event, which also features Santa Express Excursions by the Bellefonte Historical Railroad Society.

But retailers also are working to ensure that shoppers feel welcome anytime and throughout the holiday season.

Chamber member Eric Bruckner, who owns Wireless Made Simple along South Allegheny Street, helped shop owners band together to stay open on Sundays this holiday season. Bruckner said he gave the concept a trial run and was overwhelmed at the results.

“I can honestly say we haven’t had one slow Sunday yet,” he said. “The important thing is to let people know downtown is open on Sundays.”

Carol Walker, owner of Victorian Rose along West High Street, said she and other retailers make an effort to connect with each customer. She sets up her shop to showcase items in a “real room” setting, so visitors can see how a potential hostess gift, such as a throw pillow, would work on a couch.

Her wares lean more toward glam than country décor, she said, but she works with every customer to help him or her find the perfect gift. She can show them what’s hot this year, too, such as elves over snowmen and Santas when it comes to decorating.

“I think what you’re getting when you shop downtown is that personal service,” she said.

Monteca Confer at Confer’s Jewelers said she thinks that customers seek out smaller retailers when they can. The family-owned jewelry shop is situated near the courthouse along North Allegheny Street.

“I think you’ll get a much more personal experience,” she said.

“We’re little shop owners and we care. We’re invested in the people who come in.”

Of course, events such as Victorian Christmas highlight what downtown has to offer and are traditional draws for many of her customers.

“That’s always exciting,” she said. “People come from all over into town and everyone is in the Christmas mood. It just feels like a hometown Christmas.”

Neighboring Milesburg also has something special planned for the holidays.

Milesburg‘s “Home Town” Christmas is set for Nov. 30, and will feature crafts, open houses, carolers on borough streets, Boy Scouts offering candy and maps and an appearance by Santa Claus.

The same day, a holiday craft show will be held at Bald Eagle Area High School in Wingate.

Philipsburg/Moshannon Valley: Specialties, customer service

Stepping into Conklin’s Corner Antique & Gift Barn near Philipsburg, visitors might be able to finish much of their gift lists in one eclectic location.

The first floor features country gifts — candles, linens and lighted canvas artwork — and antiques from all over the region.

A second floor packed with seasonal decorations draws visitors from around the state, store owner Terri Conklin said.

“We spend the whole summer setting up the Christmas room,” she said. “Orders start coming in May.”

Though it’s extra work, Conklin said, employees pride themselves on customer service, down to keeping records of some customer purchases, so that for example a husband wouldn’t mistakenly buy a piece of Kameleon jewelry his wife already owns.

“I just think you’re going to get more special attention at a small store like ours,” she said. “We hand pick each item.”

That customer service is what makes retailers in the Moshannon Valley stand out, even without rows of storefronts packed with holiday goods in a traditional downtown setting, economic development leaders said.

“We have a hardware store that’s been around more than 100 years,” said Stanley LaFuria, executive director of the Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership. “You can walk into (Kephart True Value Hardware in Philipsburg) and three or four people will ask you if you need help.

“The customer service is outstanding. It’s one of those things that sets us apart.”

Dana Shoemaker, executive director of the Philipsburg Revitalization Corporation, said those who want to buy holiday gifts locally often opt for spa, salon and restaurant gift certificates.

“We don’t have the specialty shops you see elsewhere,” Shoemaker said. “But you see a lot of businesses that serve the community in general.

“Philipsburg is a community that really supports itself.”

A Christmas kickoff event, complete with a parade and Santa pictures for kids, helps retailers focus on special promotions, she said.

“It’s about encouraging the businesses to offer something at a great deal,” Shoemaker said.

Penns Valley: Finding the one-of-a-kind

Those hunting for unique gifts may find that a stop in Penns Valley is worthwhile. It’s the quirky, artsy kind of place where visitors can find both fine art and second-hand treasures or unusual items such as functional, miniature instruments and beer-related goods — all in close proximity.

Centre Hall Borough has a couple of second-hand shops.

Steiger’s Early Americana is a must-stop for borough Secretary-Treasurer Beth Araujo.

Borough workers soon will be putting up holiday themed banners to make for a more festive experience.

“I shop there for Christmas gifts,” Araujo said. “They have a lot of different things, all sorts of gifts and decorations for around the house.”

A few miles away, locals have come together to offer the third annual Merry Millheim Weekend, a chance to show off unusual and handmade gifts, said Elk Creek Café & Aleworks proprietor Tim Bowser.

The brewpub has been through six holiday seasons so far.

“Business around the holidays — that has changed,” he said. “When we first opened, these other shops weren’t here yet and people went east and west to do shopping. Now, more shopping is available so we’re seeing it heat up a little bit.”

A candle shop, second-hand store and art gallery await visitors, as well as a place for coffee and, of course, the brewpub for dinner and live music, Bowser said.

“You can get a great meal, great beer and a great cup of coffee and enjoy the small-town atmosphere,” he said. “Beer and other beer-related swag make great gifts, too. Everybody always needs beer.”

Nearby, the Green Drake Gallery along West Main Street in Millheim offers more original gift ideas.

Karl Leitzel, managing partner and a resident artist at the gallery, said giving hand-crafted presents also can mean sharing a piece of local pride.

“Most of the crafts — including jewelry, pottery and things like that, and the majority of the fine art — are from local and regional people,” he said.

“For most people, if they’re going to buy fine art or crafts, they like that personal connection, the idea that this is made by somebody I know of, as opposed to a mass produced gift from China.”

Jewelry and pottery are big sellers at Green Drake, he said, as are handmade small-scale instruments such as cigar-box guitars, Native American style flutes and thumb pianos.

“The guy who makes them uses real cigar boxes,” Leitzel said. “He’ll hide old coins inside or an old photograph. Everything we have is very individual.”

Boalsburg: Gifts with a story

Thinking outside the box stores offers shoppers a chance to find a more meaningful gift, said Staci Egan, who owns Contempo Artisan Boutique along South Church Street in Boalsburg.

The shop features all handmade goods and supplies —75 percent of which comes from local artisans.

“It keeps the money in the community,” she said.

“A lot of my artists aren’t necessarily full-time artists; they have children or some are seniors. I think the important part about buying art or handmade is that it has a story. It’s not something mass produced that you’re going to see someone else in town has.

“I can tell you why it was made, how it was made and the reason it was made.”

Egan also hosts classes, such as jewelry-making, photography, knitting and even furniture-making, and some of her customers are opting to give certificates that can be used for a crafty experience.

“A lot of people have enough — there’s always the person who has everything — so having the option of doing the class can be a great gift,” she said.

Even before Christmas, participating Boalsburg merchants will offer sales for Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Portfolio Sunday from Nov. 29 to Dec. 1.

Then, on Dec. 7, Boalsburg’s Hometown Christmas offers a chance to experience the variety within the business community and spend a day with family and friends, committee member Jenni Evans said.

The annual event brings in crowds for activities such as carriage rides, crafts, caroling and the Holiday Hop dance.

“We really try to make the events geared toward families and children,” she said. “The businesses bring out their best.”

Renata Glon relocated her shop, Elegant Affairs, from State College to a spot along West Main Street in Boalsburg this January.

Glon said shoppers are buying her women’s clothing and accessories because they’re different, and retailers nearby are drawing visitors for the same reason.

“All the stores try to bring stuff nobody else sells, and the businesses are growing,” she said. “They’re all very different, with all kinds of gifts.”