Small Business Saturday gains foothold

Bridget Zeunges helps a customer at her Jay Street retro clothing boutique Dames on Small Business Saturday. (Daniel Fitzsimmons/Gazette reporter)Bridget Zeunges helps a customer at her Jay Street retro clothing boutique Dames on Small Business Saturday. (Daniel Fitzsimmons/Gazette reporter)

By Daniel Fitzsimmons

SCHENECTADY — Several of the mannequins at the downtown retro women’s clothing boutique “Dames” were stripped of their garments on Saturday.

“All my mannequins are getting naked because I have nothing really left to put on them,” said Bridget Zeunges, owner of the Jay Street shop, with a smile. “I can’t even get over it.”

If Black Friday is for door-busting a big-box store to score an 80-inch flat screen TV, the following Small Business Saturday is for visiting that local bookstore or gift shop to find that one-of-a-kind item.

At Dames, that means a curated selection of retro dresses, coats, blouses and other women’s garments and accessories that, on Saturday, were flying out the door. Zeunges said she sold out of one style dress she carries — seven in total — in under two hours after opening.

“I’m probably going to sit in the middle of the room at the end of the day and cry, [that’s] how happy I am,” she said. “It’s been beautiful.”

Zeunges said Dames has only been open about five months, and this is the boutique’s first Small Business Saturday.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, and I’ve probably sold at least 50-something pieces,” she said. “That’s the beauty of small business, you never know and it’s constantly a gamble, but then the second it works you’re like ‘How’d this happen?’”

Further north on Jay Street, well over a dozen people were browsing inside The Open Door bookshop and gift store.

Manager Amy Lane said she doesn’t know exactly the affinity for small and independent businesses, but, she said, “I hope it’s because we’re part of their community. And I think as a nation we’re starting to get back to that.”

Lane said the store has been in existence on Jay Street for 45 years and that the Internet, and particularly outlets like Amazon that specialize in print media, poses a significant challenge to brick and mortar book sellers.

“That to me is the biggest challenge because now there are all these new platforms that we have to be a part of because our world is growing in that capacity,” said Lane. “But that’s tricky because we’re so used to being hands on, interpersonal, so really bringing that across in cyberspace, that’s the challenge.”

But it’s also rewarding, she said, especially when repeat customers find themselves coming back year after year, contributing to the sense of community around the store and gift shop.

“It’s a joy. Even if those faces only pop in once a year, it’s still a treat to see the familiar,” said Lane. “And that lends to the whole sense of community, so I like that.”

On upper Union Street, Anthony Kaczmarek of Sondra’s Fine Jewelry said the Upper Union Business Improvement District has put a lot of time and money into improving the retail corridor in recent years.

“Some people don’t realize how much there is on this street,” he said. “You can get all your Christmas shopping done here.”

Sondra’s has been on upper Union Street for nearly 10 years, and for Small Business Saturday was giving away a pair of 14-karat diamond earrings. The promotion is a great way to get new faces in the store, he said, and hopefully generate interest in their products heading into the holiday shopping season.

And while Sondra’s has seen some of the same pressures that The Open Door has faced from the Internet, Kaczmarek said the jewelry business benefits from a buying experience where people typically seek to visit the store and try pieces on and learn about them.

“So I think that’s going to keep the jewelry stores going, but the Internet is a challenge for any new business,” he said.

At the Viaport Rotterdam Mall a long line of people snaked down the main corridor waiting to gain entrance to the newly opened Via Aquarium, which sold 12,000 tickets its opening week. And while the aquarium itself might not be a small business, that doesn’t mean small businesses aren’t benefitting from it.

Keith Tooker relocated his aquarium business “Something Fishy” from Scotia to a smaller space inside the mall to take advantage of the interest in fish the aquarium was bound to generate. The gamble paid off, he said.

“It was a little rocky at first but it picked up when the aquarium opened,” said Tooker, who worked at Something Fishy for seven years before buying the business from the owner in May.

Tooker said he actually helped stock the aquarium, which opened Nov. 12, and sells some of the same fish that are on display there like seahorses and moon jellies, a species of jellyfish that he said if properly cared for will outlive their owners.

Tooker said what sets small businesses apart is a focus on customer service. Tooker said he offers a 24-hour service for fish owners who have an emergency, like a tank break or rapidly deteriorating tank ecosystem.

“I saw a need for it, I’ve been in that position myself,” he said. “It helps to have somebody who’s qualified on the spot.”

Tooker, who’s kept fish as a hobby since he was 10, said longtime customers of the store have followed him from the Scotia location because they know he’s committed to going the extra mile for them, which is what helps small businesses survive.

“We may not be able to compete with the other stores price-wise,” he said. “But we make up for it with personal service.”