It was cold Saturday morning, and later it rained, but groups of happy shoppers nonetheless browsed the downtown shops in Albany, as they do in cities across the nation, finding local goods, drink and food as part of a commerce movement that seeks to escape the big box stores and the online buying trends.

Small Business Saturday is daylong national movement that seeks to amplify the value of shopping local, supporting the brick-and-mortar strongholds that still offer the service and community that draws from more traditional holiday gift buying. This year's event was the eighth.

Nineteen downtown Albany businesses participated, each displaying the blue and white national logo, with employees sporting a pin that reads, "Shop Small."

"It's our best day of the year," said Barb Schoonober, co-owner of Bolts to Blocks fabric store at 133 Broadalbin St. SW.

Schoonober's "Shop Small" pin and her store are a testament to the movement: She worked for 20 years in management with Costco Wholesale, and for the past four years has applied her energy to her local shop. She added that shopping locally keep the money in local hands, rather than "going off to giant corporations."

Over at the Natty Dresser at 425 1st Avenue W, Ronnie Gribble wrapped up a bright red package while talking about the value of "service, not sales" at the store.

"I think it's great to see people come out and support our local stores like this," she said.

While Schoonober and many others tout the local commerce experience, something of a massive shift in retail habits has swept the country: An April story in the Atlantic, called, "The Great Retail Apocalypse," sought answers for why so many retailers are falling by the wayside, going bankrupt, or shrinking. The easy answer is e-Commerce.

The story cites the fact that half the nation's households are Amazon prime members. Forbes Magazine puts that number at 64 percent. Another factor is the over-abundance of shopping malls: There are 1,200 of them nationwide, and in the face of online options, many are struggling.

But another element from the Atlantic article lends itself to the shopping districts in Albany and other downtown retail areas: More Americans are trading material consumerism for eating out with friends. According to the report, 2016 marked the first time that Americans spent more money at restaurants than at grocery stores. This is attributed to what some call a "Restaurant Renaissance."

In Albany, Novak's Hungarian restaurant and Growler Garage & Taphouse are participating. Of course, there are more than a few other eateries downtown, and the food element could be the part that keeps the movement growing. Because for some it's decidedly more festive to head out and have some food, maybe a pint or two, and then stroll the shops, see your neighbors and buy gifts.

"I just love seeing everyone coming in, enjoying themselves, holding their cups of cocoa and shopping," said Julie Mendenhall, a sales associate at Emma Downtown, 422 1st Avenue W.

In that store, the Christmas music wafted through the air, and the warm glow of Christmas lights and pine boughs decorated the store. 

Shop Small is the motto. The result could be big, on a local level at least.

Contact reporter Neil Zawicki at 541-812-6099 or neil.zawicki@lee.net

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