Making Main Street Music Again

The holiday shopping season was much in the news this week, as the warmth of Thanksgiving quickly faded to Black Friday, followed in close succession by Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. The stuttering economy has put retail sales under the microscope, and consumer activity during the run-up to Christmas is occupying the center of attention for business journalists around the globe.

The statistics are somewhat dizzying. Bloomberg reports this week that retail sales rose twenty per cent on Monday from a year earlier as shoppers flocked to the Web for deals. Online spending for that single day was well over a billion dollars according to ComScore Inc., a market-research firm. Sales on the Web and in malls surged over the weekend, when consumers spent a record fifty-two billion dollars, according to the National Retail Federation.

Closer to home, we lack good statistics for how local businesses are faring this holiday season, but the brilliant weather over Thanksgiving weekend seems to have boosted sales as well as spirits, at least temporarily. Longer term, there are concerns about business vitality on Main street, especially in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown as two anchor businesses close their doors after twenty-eight years. Emily Bramhall, the owner of Bramhall & Dunn in Vineyard Haven, announced last month that she would close her store to pursue other interests. And this week Kathy Cerick and her husband, Charles Fitzgerald, longtime owners of In the Woods on Main street in Edgartown, spoke frankly to the Gazette in an interview about their decision to shut down after nearly three decades.

The closing of these two businesses leaves large gaps in the downtown smiles, and many downtown merchants worry about what will take their place. Another T-shirt or ice-cream shop set up to grab the quick bucks of the tourist trade and then flee for the Caribbean in the winter? Tourist businesses of course have their place in a resort community but do little to sustain the economy in the long run and should be a small part of the mix on an Island with some fifteen thousand year-round residents.

There is no easy fix at hand. Challenges to business owners on the Island are myriad. It matters little that there are no big-box stores on the Island when buying over the internet has become so simple. For local merchants, the profitable summer season is short, while the deficit season runs long through the winter months. Commercial rents are high — in some downtown areas astronomically high. Unable to pay the heat and light bills from their earnings, never mind workers, many stores close their doors for the winter out of necessity. The trickle-down effect is huge. Employees must be laid off and find wages through other means: perhaps another lower-paying job, perhaps by collecting unemployment, or perhaps by finding work off-Island. That means fewer dollars on Island for spending on essentials and extras, and everyone feels it right on down the line.

The changing Main street story on the Vineyard is not all bad news. Young business owners are beginning to appear with start-ups, although so far in small numbers — we’d like to see more of them. And hard times have brought would-be competitors closer together to advance the greater good. The Edgartown Board of Trade’s Christmas in Edgartown celebration set for next weekend marks its thirtieth anniversary this year, and all around town merchants are geared up for the special events that will run from Friday through Sunday. The tone is upbeat, the outlook hopeful, and the spirit of collaboration among local businesses is exemplary. In Oak Bluffs, the Santa Sweepstakes, promoting merchants and restaurants, is under way. Vineyard Haven’s annual Friends and Family Night celebration is in just a couple of weeks.

All over the Island there is a growing interest in finding creative solutions to keep the village centers vital. We need a good mix of businesses, and while not everyone can or should stay open year-round, it is essential that some stay open in the winter months, including restaurants, coffee shops and dry goods stores.

We applaud our local merchants for finding creative new ways to encourage commerce during this holiday season; the issue of nurturing and supporting local business, however, is one that should concern us all. A good public roundtable discussion is in order among Island business leaders, one that could include the Chamber of Commerce, whose mission is to support business and tourism on the Vineyard, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, our unique regional planning agency whose mission includes promoting a stable, year-round economy.

Let’s have that discussion before another winter slips away.