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Votes

Holiday Shopping — Without the Hassle

Retailers Hoping for Positive Results

Looking for that perfect, unusual gift? Want to impress holiday guests with great decorations? Tired of touring Northern Virginia trying to find that certain item or gift?

Then forget the mega malls and big-box stores and head for the community shopping centers. That's where many shoppers were finding those holiday specialties on "Black Friday."

While thousands were jamming the Wal-Marts and Kmarts and multilevel malls, others were patronizing the more personal shops in the centers where parking and walking was not a training exercise for the Marine Corps marathon.

Kevin Green, owner of the Virginia Florist in the Belle View Shopping Center, 1602 Belle View Blvd., definitely has items for those on Santa's list who are in the "have everything" category. He can offer some things they definitely do not have — because they are one of a kind.

On the wall, immediately to the left of the front door, are a series of framed original concert posters from San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom, circa 1966-67. They herald the appearances of rock greats performing in the city that, in the ‘60s, was synonymous with the name of his exhibit, "Psychedelia."

All are priced at $350 except for the one titled "The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Johnny Hammond and his Screaming Nighthawks, Robert Baker." It was priced at $475. But, alas, it had been sold and is on its way to a very large stocking.

Others in the collection include "Jefferson Airplane, Great Society" and "Moby Grape, The Charlatans." The latter poster, according to Green, "Showcased Stanley Mouse's interest in vibrant inks that fluoresced wildly under black light, a style that came to define the psychedelic era."

Concerts advertised by the posters were held in the ballroom between June 1966 and May 1967. The last in the series announces the May 5-7 concert of "Motherload: Big Brother & the Holding Company, Sir Douglas Quintet, Orkustra." They appeared just weeks before San Francisco's Summer of Love event and the landmark Monterey Pop Festival.

GREEN BOUGHT the shop from its original owners in February 2000, "right after Valentine's Day," he said. It was established in 1957.

"Sales were up substantially until about July," Green said. "Then there was the usual drop in late summer, but they didn't pick up as normally happens in the fall. Sales have been off about 20 percent."

Green attributes the sluggish sales to the economy and a lack of confidence by the consumer. "The economy is all about confidence. And confidence always has a dark side. We've been on a very long ride. But eventually you have to pay the piper." He did concede that holiday decoration orders were much-improved, particularly from his business clients.

In addition to the posters and a wide array of floral offerings, Green's shop also contains a number of other unusual gifts for the dedicated shopper. On display just inside the door are detailed replicas of antique toys, eclectic gimmicks made from discarded items such as a camera/flash bulb lamp, and bird houses with shellacked books for roofs and perches made from items representing the books' subject matter. One example was "Winnie the Pooh" with a honey stirrer for a perch.

NEARBY IS Kathy's Corner Cards and Gifts. Owner Kathy Richards felt that even before last Friday, "Business has been picking up. And, it's actually been pretty good for us since we opened today."

But, she acknowledged, "It has been off for the last year. There was the drop after 9/11, and then the sniper didn't help things. Her Hallmark store sells a variety of items as well as cards. Shoppers were busy eyeing the various tree ornaments and holiday decoration accessories.

Not faring so well on Black Friday was Skaters Paradise in the Belle View center. Paul Hanson, general manager, indicated, "Sales have been slower than prior years. We're hoping that it will pick up." He has been in his location for 21 years.

Just next door is the Hodges Gallery. It will mark its 30th anniversary in the center in 2004. Libby Bryant, manager, assessed recent sales as "pretty good." She attributed it to, "A lot of our framing customers shop early because it does take time to properly frame a piece of art.

"But we still get our share of last-minute requests for framing. We try to meet those requests right up to couple of days before Christmas." The gallery merchandises a wide variety of art for all tastes.

Two of the locations in Belle View center with the most customers on the Friday after Thanksgiving were Radio Shack and Parcel Plus. The former was offering deeply discounted sales on DVDs and other items, which were being ravenously consumed by anxious customers.

Parcel Plus, whose slogan is "Your Pack-and-Ship Solution," were busy sending gifts worldwide. "It slowed down during the sniper period, but it's picking up every day now," said Fitzhugh Godwin.

With more and more military reservists being deployed, it is expected that customers of businesses such as Parcel Plus will be accelerating during this holiday period.

HOLLIN HALL SHOPPING CENTER merchants, at 7902 Fort Hunt Road, were also upbeat about snagging their share of holiday searchers. "We are doing very well. Particularly given the economy," said Dorothy M. Trimber, a partner with Jennifer E. Stackpole in ownership of the Blossom Shop.

"There has been a big pickup with the holidays. Our sales are up 20 percent of what we do on average," she insisted. "We are getting a lot of Christmas orders in already."

One of the factors Trimber attributed this to was the change from last year's reluctance to go all out after 9/11. "There was a drop in last year's office parties and other parties due to the attacks," she maintained. "Now people are doing more. We're getting calls from restaurants and businesses to prepare displays for their holiday parties."

Trimber and her partner just acquired the store within the last two years. "We have been getting a lot of people who want to see what changes we've made and what we are offering," she explained. "We have added a lot of lines such as the Waterford ornaments, and we have kept the traditional items like our handmade boxwood wreaths."

Complimenting their floral offerings, the Blossom Shop, located at 7906 Fort Hunt Road, has a wide assortment of holiday decorations and accessories. On display were usually shaped wreaths, an extensive variety of decorative items, and various table centerpieces, as examples of their merchandise diversity.

Deborah Bentley, owner of The Gift Shop, located next to the Blossom Shop, was equally enthusiastic. "This year we are meeting our numbers. We're definitely up from last year. We're at our pre-9/11 figures for this beginning of the holiday buying season."

She admitted, "People drew back during the sniper episode. But now they're out again and shopping. We have gifts for all ages, from babies to the elderly. The oldest person for which we have supplied at gift was 101."

ONE OF THE MOST comprehensive stores in the Hollin Hall center, and one of the longest in existence, is Hollin Hall Variety Store. If you can't find it there, it probably doesn't exist.

Charles (Ben) Vennel and his wife, Ann, started the store in 1958. In fact, there is a picture of Ben in his office, as a 20-something-year-old, standing with the contractors as the store was taking shape at 7902 Fort Hunt Road.

There are also numerous pictures of Ben, his wife, and their daughter, Vicky Ann, with various U.S. presidents and their spouses and families, at official and unofficial functions. Vicky Ann is with ABC News, assigned to the president, whoever that might be at any given time.

"When President Clinton played golf at Belle Haven Country Club, we were invited to meet him. It was on my birthday. After the game he told me to wait a minute. He went to his car and came back with a presidential cap, which he gave me as a birthday gift." That hat hangs next to the picture in Ben's office showing Clinton with the Vennel family.

"Business is going great," Vennel emphasized. "If we take out last year's flags and patriotic items, we're ahead of the game. Last year, after Sept. 11, we were up 20 percent all due to flags, ribbons and other patriotic symbols. It was the same during the yellow-ribbon craze."

Vennel attributes his long success to the fact that "we are very much into the community. Sales are as good now as we've had over our 45-year history in this location."

Hollin Hall Variety Store sales have been escalating at an average of 5-10 percent annually, according to Vennel. The store offers everything from pantyhose to toys to craft items to silk flowers to holiday decorations, for whatever season.

"We've had exceptionally good and bad years, depending on the national economy," he said. "But, in many ways, tough times are better for us because of the variety we have to offer and our prices. We're not the type store that going to be hurt by selling big-ticket items."

When asked about the present economic situation, Vennel offered this analysis. "We are fortunate to be located in Mount Vernon. Although it's not recession-proof, it will be one of the last to fall. As long as I see Mercedes and Caddys in the parking lot, I know we're okay."

ALMOST IN contradiction to the weakened national economy and bargain-hunting was the report from the consignment shop known as "Kids Again" in the Hollin Hill center. "Sales are a little down," said Jennifer Tanner. That applied to both their toys and clothing items.

"With Christmas coming, we're expecting things to pick up, particularly in toys," she stated. Kids Again has two other shops in the Northern Virginia area, and Tanner stated their sales were also sluggish. They specialize in pre-owned items covering the entire gamut of children's clothing and toys.

One store that was particularly jammed on Black Friday was the Mount Vernon Gift Shop at the Estate. Doris Ryan, manager on duty, who has been with the shop for 30 years, noted, "We're up in revenue from last year. Our sales have been very good.

"The Christmas shop is doing particularly well. People are also buying a lot of our food, wine and cider. They seem to really like the Virginia peanuts."

She noted the big sellers seemed to be reproductions of George Washington and books dealing with both the history of the American Revolution and the Mount Vernon Estate. "Our estate-sale jewelry is also selling exceptionally well," she pointed out.

Ryan found her 30 years at the gift shop of the Mount Vernon Estate to be "a real fun place to work. The people coming through are very interesting and an education as well."

For those that chose to pass on the pre-dawn lines at the big shopping centers and concentrate on the community centers, Black Friday proved to be a day of rewards not only in price but also in selections.

As one shopper in Kathy's Corner put it, "I just found the perfect gift for my husband," as she selected a Hallmark Keepsake ornament for their tree. "It contains all his favorite items, trains, circus animals and a calliope," she exclaimed. And each with its own sounds.