As you will be well aware if you’re keeping tabs on an annuity, Wall Street has been riding a bucking bronco for the past month or so. The Standard & Poors 500 Index plummeted more than 19 percent from a September high to late December, and the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index began to drop after running in high gear through most of 2018. When investors grow bearish, retailers get nervous — especially at Christmastime, when they depend on strong sales to propel them through leaner months to come.
But how much does a swift, steep drop in economic indicators at year’s end impact small businesses at the local level? Going by reports from retailers in New Paltz and environs, there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation. While a protracted recession might be another matter, the shop-owners we visited mostly had a decent holiday shopping season, comparable to 2017. The consensus seemed to be that, in a small town, other factors such as weather tend to matter much more than the state of the stock market. And demand for some kinds of products and services tends to remain fairly constant from one year to the next — which is how many of these entrepreneurs manage to stay in business. The current national trend to “shop local” doesn’t hurt, either.
According to Leonard Gianotti, who took over ownership of the Hudson Valley Wine Market in the Gardiner hamlet in June 2016, wine and liquor stores are a “recession-proof” business. “When times are bad, people drink to commiserate; when times are good, people drink to celebrate,” he says. And for most such retailers, typically November and December are a peak time for sales of products designed to lift the holiday spirits. But because it’s such a destination for outdoor recreation, Gardiner is a bit of a special case: “Due to tourism, sales start to wake up here in May,” thanks to heightened visitation at the Lazy River Campground, an “avid, rabid community of skydivers” and the return of second-home-owners. July through October is the Wine Market’s busiest season, Gianotti says. “As the weather gets nastier, the customers get fewer.”
As a result, 2018 saw a slight decrease in sales for the shop, “less than one percent down from the best year the store ever had” in 2017. “I attribute that to the rainiest April in the last 45 years, plus getting inundated in September and October,” which dampened tourist traffic. Holiday shopping was “slightly off,” he says, with fewer customers coming through the door but each of those typically spending more money for hosting parties and visiting. Locally produced alcoholic beverages, such as the Hudson Whiskey line from Tuthilltown Spirits and wines from Whitecliff Vineyards, are Gianotti’s most popular gift purchases.
Another type of local business where demand remains fairly constant from year to year is musical instrument sales and rentals. In fact, according to Dennis Jacobs, owner for 14 years of Jacobs Music in the Highland hamlet, the worst times for the economy can sometimes be the best times for interest in learning to make one’s own music. “It didn’t affect Main Street,” Jacobs says. “The local economy can have its own nucleus.” He attributes part of his shop’s staying power to the influx of new businesses to the town center. “Highland has had a lot of changes over the years. It’s becoming more vibrant now.” But mostly the shop’s strength lies in its “good, healthy balance across the board” of products and services: “We’re a full-line, full-service music center; we do everything in-house.”
How did Jacobs Music do over the holidays? “Generally, Christmastime is one of our busiest seasons, across all of our services. 2018 was a pretty decent year — not one of our worst years…This year was up from last year.” What’s trending, when it comes to demand? “Ukuleles have been strong the last couple of years. That trend continues.”
Weather doesn’t have a big impact on music sales, nor does the stock market; but Jacobs frets about other economic forces that put stresses on small retailers: the proliferation of big-box stores and large corporations that buy up both the production and the distribution ends of a particular type of product, making it difficult for shops like his to compete. Also, he notes, there’s a tendency for customers these days to rely too heavily on online reviews of instruments, rather than trusting their own ears when trying one out. “People used to do their own research,” he laments. “Before you click, look around. You want businesses to succeed in your hometown.”
The mix of businesses in a downtown and the type of customers that they attract are playing a noticeable role in Rosendale’s Main Street shopping district as well. Some shops that have been in existence for a long time, thriving on the town’s ‘60s hippie vibe, are finding it more challenging to appeal to the younger crowd of hipsters from Brooklyn and Manhattan who are increasingly being drawn to Rosendale as a weekend destination since the completion of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail link at the Rondout trestle. Tris Smith, manager of Vision of Tibet, notes that in the past year or so, several other businesses with a counterculture appeal similar to the import store have either closed up shop or moved to other towns: TRANSnDANCEnDRUM, ImmuneSchein Ginger Elixirs and Teas, the People’s Cauldron, Yoga Yoga.
“The demographics have changed. There’s less foot traffic,” says Smith, who reports that Vision of Tibet’s 2018 holiday season was “slower than last year, but not significantly… With the stock market, people are holding onto their money a little more now… I think with our president, people are a little scared.”
But business booms anytime the town, its chamber of commerce or downtown business association organizes one of the street festivals for which Rosendale is famous, and she says that the hiatus of the Mermaid Parade last summer was strongly felt. “We do as well with the Mermaid festival as during the Rosendale Street Festival — even better than Frozendale. It brings in both locals and first-timers,” Smith avers. “As a community, we need to have more public events. I’d like to see them do something for Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day.”
Popular gift items for holiday buyers at her shop this year were “everything from scarves to clothing to deities; rugs, bedspreads, jewelry, journals, pocketbooks. People buy incense for stocking-stuffers.” Knitted woolens, including colorful socks, slippers and hats with fleece linings, “go like hotcakes,” Smith said, along with felted wool items like hot pads, coasters and animal-puppet bottle-toppers.
Just up the street, it was a great holiday shopping season at Soiled Doves, which sells “finely curated junk at very affordable prices,” according to owner Elizabeth Bloom. “I would say we did the best we ever did this year.” Part of the 12-year-old store’s recent flush of success is due to the opening of a similar store, Nettle & Violet, which she says is helping to brand downtown Rosendale as a destination for bargain-hunters for vintage clothing and housewares. “I love that there’s more than one of us.”
Soiled Doves’ offerings are also proving a hit with the hipster crowd, especially mid-20th-century items. “Anything from the ‘50s to the ‘70s flies out of the store,” Bloom reports. “Everybody always wants plaid..It’s their ‘upstate’ outfits.” She attributes the shop’s burgeoning popularity with young weekenders to her assistant, Jessica Brush, whom she hired about a year ago. Brush, a textile designer, has enhanced the store’s social-media marketing presence, especially on Instagram, as well as initiated online sales via eBay. Together the two women have found a whole new repository of fans of their wares, which they characterize as “a little weird and eccentric.”
One such customer, 16-year-old New Paltz High School student Rhiannon Sloane, was enjoying the “retail entertainment atmosphere” at Soiled Doves when this reporter paid a visit. “I like it because you have to squeeze through everything,” Sloane says. “You could search in this store and be finding something new every two hours.”
But what about higher-end retail? How did merchants along North Front Street, New Paltz’s “Gift Shop Row,” fare over the 2018 holidays? Reasonably well, it seems, thanks mainly to believers in the “shop local” mantra. According to Kelly and Jessica Covert, twin co-managers at Handmade & More, business was “not as good as last year, but we did well.” The store experienced a slight slump in traffic in mid-December. “It was a weird holiday time, because Hanukkah was early,” says Kelly. “People waited until the last minute,” Jessica agrees. “People tell us they’re so tired of shopping online. They come here because they’re looking for unique things.”
Handmade’s free gift-wrapping service remains a big draw for hurried shoppers, but the Covert sisters note that the store’s renowned array of unusual Yule tree ornaments no longer enjoys the high sales volume that it once did. Trending in 2018 were scarves, says Kelly: “That’s the best gift ever. It didn’t use to be that way.” Hot items for youngsters were anything sporting “unicorns and sloths. Unicorns were very big. Kids are loving them right now.” “And llamas,” chimes in Jessica.
Across the street at Verde, we visited Alana Sawchuk, who also manages the trendy housewares emporium Cocoon on Main Street in New Paltz. “I think that we did really good this year” at both stores, she reports. The national political situation influenced customers’ buying preferences in late 2018, according to Sawchuk. “The theme of the holidays is that everyone’s stressed. So they like soft things…jackets, big fluffy sweaters…Socks are really popular.”
Some of those socks are thick and cushy, perfect for a winter afternoon of cocooning on the couch, while others pop with color and edgy design, meant to be seen on the street. The ones depicting badass Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sold out in a flash. So did lapel pins and tree ornaments bearing her likeness. Verde and Cocoon’s owner, Julie Safran, “let me order RBG because I’m into pop culture and she’s not,” Sawchuk says. Her instincts proved true with some other trendy wares: items depicting two very different types of painters, Frida Kahlo and Bob Ross. “Bob Ross is really popular because he’s relaxing and people are stressed out right now.”
Other tension-relievers that sold well were PinchMe Therapy Dough, books and candles. “Anti-Trump gag items” were hot sellers at Cocoon for a while, but Sawchuk professes relief that she doesn’t have to listen to the ones that talk anymore.
So, what generalizations can be made about the 2018 holiday shopping season in and around New Paltz? Primarily, it seems, that Wall Street woes aren’t the main thing on our minds when it comes to gifting. And that it really does take a village to keep small businesses thriving.