Santa Surveys His Domain

In Vineyard Haven, Merchants Hoping to Help Him Out

By ALEXIS TONTI

With six shopping days left until Christmas, Tisbury merchants say the women will come early, the men late. Parking will be tough, but when isn't it? And though the wind may be cold the shops are warm, and the white lights of a Main street night alone make it worth the walk.

Vineyard Haven store owners are hoping this weekend will bring a rush to boost holiday business. December is usually one of the more profitable months of the year, but so far sales have been lackluster.

"It's been slow to start. We have had one ton of bad weather. I dare say I wouldn't go out to shop," said Anne Nelson of Bunch of Grapes bookstore.

"December is vital. If it's good it pays your rent through to May," said Liza Coogan of the Paper Tiger. "If it's not good you're lucky to get two months out of it."

"We're trying to do as much as we can in a very short time span," said April Levandowski of LeRoux at Home. "It's a big push second only to summer."

Some say business is consistent with last year: "It hasn't been unbelievable, but it's still strong," said Elaine Barse, who owns both The Green Room and LeRoux Clothing and Shoes. "I think people have an idea of the amount of money they want to spend, and whether they spend it at the beginning of December or at the end, it comes out the same."

But most think downtown has been too quiet.

Ms. Coogan has seen her regular customers but not many newcomers. "I think the economy is still very slow, and we're not going to see a turnaround for a while," she said. "We've tried to do later nights but there isn't a person on the streets after 5:30. And when you look and see only two cars driving around, you aren't going to stay open those extra hours."

Amy Levine, who owns It's in the Bag, points to the store wish list - a registry where people note what they want as gifts. Last year the notebook was filled, she said. This year the list takes up only three pages.

The weather has not helped. The northeaster that hit Dec. 5 put a damper on a number of events planned in downtown that Saturday - horse and carriage rides, strolling choral groups, the annual chowder contest. The stores also had agreed to stay open until 8 p.m.

But the storm forced the Steamship Authority to cancel service Friday night and again Saturday afternoon through midday Sunday. Daytrippers stayed on the other side and the high winds and precipitation kept Islanders at home.

"Light snow, people will come out. But the rain and the cold, people don't want to deal with it," said Garry Metters of Bowl and Board.

"So much was planned for that Saturday, and it was just so rainy. People came out for the chowder contest [at the Mansion House] but then they just went home. I think we sold two 75-cent cards between five and eight," said Helen Koch, a manager at Bramhall & Dunn.

Business owners also say Islanders tend to shop on the mainland early in December.

"All the big malls have their sales in the early weeks and people want to take advantage of that," said Mr. Metters.

"The sales that the off-Island stores are having are gigantic," said Ms. Levine. "The huge conglomerates go and mark things down 50, 60, 70 per cent. People don't realize our tiny stores can't afford to do that. And we certainly can't afford to mark down all of our merchandise."

Also, as Islanders become more comfortable with the Internet they are increasingly tapping it as a resource. Ms. Levine hears it from customers all the time: "People say it's great, wonderful, easy. There's not one thing you can't buy on-line."

Downtown Vineyard Haven was still quiet this past weekend. It had Christmas in Edgartown to contend with, and the impact was clear. Parking was easy to find on the side streets, and the stores were manageable with little to no line at the front counters.

There are, however, signs that business will pick up coming into this weekend and the new year. The Mansion House has seen more return bookings - summer guests who make their winter reservations as they check out - than it did before the fire (two years ago this week).

"We had a full house on Thanksgiving, and we're looking at full houses again for Christmas and New Year's," said owner Susan Goldstein. "Then the first weekend in January we're booked for a corporate conference. We have a lot of people using the restaurant and meeting rooms."

Though many business owners are skeptical that more bookings will translate to more business, they say it can't hurt.

They also think the extended hours may help: most are staying open this Saturday until 10 p.m.

"This weekend is when it will finally be a zoo," said Ms. Koch.

"Christmas never gets going until the 20th anyway," said Mr. Metters. "The women may get it done early, but the guys will be in here the 24th. Always."

Ms. Nelson, who has invited Islanders to the bookstore to go caroling at 7:30 Friday night, had no weekend predictions. She said only: "Some years are better than others and we all like to make it to the bottom line, but at this time of year we have to remember it's about giving and the holiday spirit."