By Stacia Erdos Littleton
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – I admit I’m not a big Hallmark Christmas movie person. But I do love those idyllic small town settings – where the store windows are quaintly decorated for the holidays, a light snow is falling and people are drinking cocoa while buying last- minute gifts from small-shop owners along the streets where everyone knows one another. (And of course are falling in love!)
I recently came across a list of the top 25 Hallmark Christmas Towns ranked by categories that included: winter scenery, friendliness, walkability, small businesses and Christmas cheer.
While ski towns such as Park City, Utah, and well, pretty much the whole state of Vermont top the list, our own Columbiana, Ohio, comes in at number 19. The list cites the Christmas in Columbiana celebration and Christmas Light Show at Firestone Park as some of the highlights.
I have no doubt that were the Downtown Youngstown Partnership and CityScape to have their way, Youngstown will one day also appear on that list. Last year, it truly was a sight to behold as thousands flocked to the newly opened pedestrian walkway for the inaugural “Flea on Phelps,” where they shopped for gifts from local vendors, strolled through the enchanting Spruce Home Décor holiday pop up store, and sampled chestnuts roasting on an open fire, with live holiday music providing a Hallmark-like backdrop.
And this holiday season is looking to be better than ever with the Flea on Phelps Holiday Market set for Dec. 2. This year, with the lower half of Phelps also open, the Flea will extend an extra block, all the way to Boardman Street.
Those heading downtown for The Flea will also get a front row seat to the holiday parade at 6 p.m. and tree lighting in Central Square an hour later. And if you can’t make it downtown Friday night, the holiday Flea continues Saturday and Sunday with 75 vendors inside The Flea’s home at 365 E. Boardman St. across from the Penguin City Brewing and Dope Cider House and Winery – both, for the first year, also open for holiday cheer.
I’ve been thrilled to notice there seems to be a real sense of a return to shopping and supporting local businesses in the Mahoning Valley this year. That’s not to say that the Amazon truck still doesn’t back up in my driveway a couple of times a week.
But that’s for stuff I “really need” at the moment. For personal gifts for someone special, you will see me supporting local vendors not only at The Flea, but also at the 51st annual American Holiday at the Butler Arts and Crafts show (the same weekend as the downtown festivities) or at the Last Minute Market by the Artists of the Rust Belt at the B&O Station on Dec. 18 and 19.
While Amazon was the go-to for shopping during COVID with people not wanting to leave their homes, I was surprised to learn some local boutiques saw an expansion in their businesses during the pandemic mainly because they were ahead of the game.
Ivory and Birch already had a Facebook group called Dibs in place, where members can get pre-sale access to clothing and see new items of apparel modeled and described live at a designated time on Facebook.
Owner Dee Muransky Thompson says while the Dibs group was already building a solid customer base, she was able to expand it during COVID to include in-store pickup with a process that enabled customers to securely store their credit cards for purchases with a quick in and out pickup same day. In fact, Dee tells me 2020 and 2021 were the store’s best Christmases to date.
Other local stores are also using Facebook Live events to feature their products, using software called CommentSold. It marries social media and ecommerce by allowing customers to purchase directly through comments on Facebook or Instagram.
Boutiques using this or a similar model include The Beauty Boutique, Bella Amica, and one of the most impressive – Spruce Home Décor, owned by brother and sister team Nicholas Giancola and Erica Lewis. Browsing the Spruce Facebook page, you can access recent videos that originally were Live on Facebook, with the duo showcasing beautiful home holiday décor with ideas on how to decorate no matter your style.
While the Amazon truck will likely be a “long-haul” effect of COVID, and local stores are providing more robust online shopping, Dee firmly believes there will always be a space for bricks-and-mortar stores.
“I joked [during COVID] we were like therapy in a store. Human interaction is always going to be there. People like to touch, feel and try on clothing, and see items in person and have the personal customer service,” she says.
And she reminds us all that while Amazon gives back in its own way, small local businesses are the ones sponsoring your kids’ football, baseball and soccer teams, and donating to auctions to help nonprofit organizations raise money – all in an effort to support our community.
So this year, on any given weekend in December I urge you to step into a local business – you just may feel like you’re stepping into a Hallmark Christmas movie as you’re greeted with a friendly smile, some holiday cheer and that human contact that we’ve all been yearning for these last couple of years as we hopefully welcome in 2023.