A very chilly Black Friday found crowds peering into handmade pottery mugs, flipping through racks of hand-sewn scarves and jackets and chatting with artists at the front of one of dozens of booths inside Kenai Central High School.
The annual craft bazaar Friday and Saturday brings artists and gift-hunters together for the two of the biggest shopping days of the year — the weekend after Thanksgiving. Other shoppers went for the sales at the big-box stores, and still others headed for the small businesses scattered around the peninsula.
The Saturday after Black Friday is marketed as “Small Business Saturday,” a tradition begun by credit card company American Express encouraging shoppers to support local businesses. The chambers of commerce in Kenai, Soldotna, Homer and Seward marketed for local businesses ahead of time as well.
It started off with a bang for Dave Parrott of 5150 Vapes in Soldotna.
“I got here two hours before we usually open … and there were already six cars in the parking lot, and it just kept up like that all day,” he said.
The shop, which occupies a bottom-floor space beneath Sugar Magnolias in the Thompson’s Corner strip mall on the Sterling Highway in Soldotna, has seen its business steadily grow since opening, Parrott said.
Down the street, the weekend wasn’t so great for Mountain Mama Originals, a handmade clothing shop tucked into a tree-lined parcel on the Sterling Highway in Soldotna. Friday was slow, she said, and Saturday brought them about half as much business as usual, said owner Susanna Evins. She attributed it in part to the downturn in the state economy and the rising unemployment rate.
“I think there’s more people losing their jobs,” she said. “… Small-ticket items went, and when you’re doing handmade pieces, (they don’t sell as well).”
Rachel Cox co-owns Maggie’s General Store, which was open for its second Thanksgiving in Kenai’s Northwood Plaza. Over the weekend Maggie’s offered its primary product — organic produce — at 30 percent off on Saturday, in addition to other gifts such as leather belts, which are still being sold 40 percent off.
“Small Business Saturday is one of our busiest days of the year,” Cox said.
Cox said Kenai’s larger chain stores weren’t competing with Maggie’s for business.
“People who are looking for our type of product come looking for us,” Cox said. “Part of our customer base is people who do not want to come to big chain stores. The other half are looking for specialty foods we provide.”
Jeanie Carter — who said the Curiosity Shop, her vintage decoration, furniture, and clothing store had “a lot of lookers, a lot of shoppers” over the weekend — also identified her business as a different shopping experience than the chain stores.
“The thing that’s kind of neat is that people will buy something of their past,” Carter said. “They’ll say their mom or their dad had this or that, and it reminded them of them. Or they’re bring their kids in to show them typewriters, and say ‘this is our first computer.’… Of course I can’t compete with the box stores as far as what they sell, technology and that, but I think people are trying to hold on to the past, and I think that draws them in here looking for things that are familiar from their childhood.”
Both Maggie’s General Store and the Curiosity Shop are part of a string of newer stores in the northwest part of Kenai offering gifts, crafts, decorations, and clothing. Maggie’s General Store shares the Northwood Plaza — a shopping complex on the Kenai Spur Highway that began renovations in January 2016 and is now fully occupied with businesses, many new — with decoration and gift store The Rustic Barn and Mabel’s Boutique clothing store. In addition to the Curiosity Shop, Northwood Plaza’s neighbors on the Spur Highway include Paisley’s Boutique — which opened around the same time as Maggie’s General Store.
For Cox, the location has worked well. The traffic to the mall “has grown exponentially,” she said.
“We didn’t have any problem getting found,” Cox said. “When we opened there were people waiting for us. We had our sign out two months before we opened. As far as getting the word out that we’re here, the right people knew about it right away.”
Carter said her shop has seen more traffic with the concentration of newer businesses in the area.
“With the little mall up the road from me now, I think people are starting to realize that I’m right here along the highway.”
In recent years, the north west side of Kenai had seen a drop in commercial traffic. Chain retailers like WalMart, Home Depot, and the since-closed Lowe’s opened on the south end, and many newer businesses have sprung up along the Spur Highway headed toward Soldotna. On the northwest side of town, Carter recalls several attractions that have closed.
“It was the center of town, this area,” she said. “Now they’ve started building more towards the other part of town, toward the high school. But I feel that with other businesses coming in and the mall out there, people will start to realize that we’re here.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.