The holiday shopping season may be in full swing, but local independent retailers are feeling more cautious this year than joyful.
They don't need to read the headlines to know we're in a recession. All the evidence they need is in the increasing number of empty storefronts dotting the city's busiest shopping districts.
For store owners, this holiday season is about survival. All the owners contacted by the Times said they have never faced a more nerve-wracking economic climate. Some are leaning on friendly service and trying to drum up community support to make their small storefronts shine alongside malls and big box retailers.
"I saw Desert Storm, I've seen recessions come and go, I've seen 9/11, hurricanes," said Maruchi Azorin, who founded Villa Rosa Distinctive Linens at MacDill Avenue and Bay to Bay Boulevard nearly 25 years ago. "And yes, this is (the toughest)."
Black Friday last week brought relief to some, but owners don't know if it will be enough.
Azorin said smaller, independent stores usually don't expect crowds on Black Friday because it's hard to compete with the mall's marketing push. That said, "we were busy all day," she said. "I was shocked."
She did not have total sales figures from that weekend, but "whether tickets were bigger or smaller, lots of little tickets make up a big one."
Still, she described herself as optimistic, but cautious.
Darian Petrucci, founder of Estella's on Bay to Bay, said her weekend sales were equivalent to last year's Thanksgiving weekend, which were the best in her store's 12-year history.
She was very pleased but still unsure about what the rest of the season will hold. "You turn on the news and it's like no one is shopping," she said.
Knowing a downturn was probably imminent, many store owners opted months ago to stock more practical, affordable items for this holiday season.
"I think (shoppers) are going to be looking for very functional things," said Carol Schultz, co-owner of Cazou tableware and accessories store on S Dale Mabry. "I know they are thinking it through, they're not just grabbing. It has to make sense."
Petrucci still stocks higher-end gifts, but also has inexpensive items on hand this year.
"You have to have something for everybody, and the staff will go out of their way to wrap that $1.95 ornament just as nicely as they wrap a $50 gift," she said. "You're just never going to find the variety, the quaintness, the uniqueness that you find in a small, independently owned boutique."
Small retailers can't beckon shoppers with big ads or doorbuster sales, but they're hoping that people who look for unusual or elegant gifts will check them out anyway. Those who need a little extra help are always welcome. "We have a lot of guys who come in," quipped Kate Thomsen, a longtime manager at La France in Ybor City.
And pssst: some — but not all — retailers say they may even offer discounts to those who ask.
In short, they want to do whatever it takes to stay afloat.
"I have people walk by here all the time and say, 'We love all these cute little shops,' " said Sheila Awad, co-owner of the year-old Four Elements tabletop and gift shop on MacDill Avenue.
"But we cannot stay here if we do not have the support of the community. We need people to shop local and buy local, otherwise we will have no alternative but to (close) or go somewhere else."
No one is more attached to the stores than their owners, most of them inveterate shoppers who love to browse and hunt and share their finds with their customers.
"I love my store," said Marlene Sundquist, owner of children's shop Seedlings on Dale Mabry. "I try to give it a fun atmosphere. Everyone's already upset and depressed and bummed out. We try to make every effort so they won't think about it for the 10 minutes or 15 minutes they are here."
Store owners, however, don't have that luxury. Harder times have made it necessary to become "a lot more cautious and selective and thoughtful," said Thomsen of LaFrance.
"In that respect, I think it's good," she said. "It's stressful and scary, but at the same time it causes you to rethink what you're doing and who your customer is."