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Downtown retailers report happy holidays

Brainerd lakes area businesses have had a heck of a time during the coronavirus pandemic with shutdowns and reopenings, but with COVID-19 vaccines now widely available — and despite rising case numbers and overwhelmed hospitals — how are small businesses doing this holiday season?

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Dawn Stieka, left,and Emily Eaton shop Monday, Dec. 21, 2021, at the Gallery in Downtown Brainerd. The universal theme from merchants seems to be their gratitude for their shoppers loyalty during 2020. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Retailers in downtown Brainerd are staying busy with Christmas shoppers with just a few days left before the gift-giving holiday.

The Olde Open Window and CatTale's Books & Gifts on Laurel Street, and The Gallery on South Seventh Street, reported an improvement in sales this holiday season compared to last.

“The shopping situation last year was, I would say, quite a lot different. Yes, we were doing curbside, yes, we were doing online,” said Ellen Backstrom, who works at The Olde Open Window.

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The Olde Open Window has been in business for almost a dozen years and expanded three times since opening at the corner of Laurel and South Sixth streets.

“We are the largest gift shop in Brainerd,” Backstrom said Saturday, Dec. 18. “But last year, we were letting people in, in limited numbers, as per the governor’s instructions. … Everyone was wearing masks, and we had masks available to hand out to everybody.”

Christmas spending

Americans spent an average of $852 on Christmas gifts in 2020 during the pandemic, according to a telephone poll by Gallup, a global analytics and advice firm — a decrease from $942 in 2019, which was a record high for the past two decades.

This year, it would appear, is making a shopping comeback.

“People seem to have a voracious appetite for shopping this year,” Backstrom said. “We’ve been much busier this year than last year.”

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Kayla Bubalo, left, talks with Mary Whitehonn, the manager of The Olde Open Window Monday, Dec. 20, 2021, in downtown Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

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The Olde Open Window sells a mix of old, new and locally handmade items; clothing; accessories; knickknacks; antiques; soy candles and melts; candles; shoes and boots, and locally handcrafted and seasonal items.

“We’ve had good sales in all areas. … They’re just buying everything,” Backstrom said.


“People seem to have a voracious appetite for shopping this year.”

— Ellen Backstrom


About 50% of consumers will spend between $100 and $999 on Christmas gifts, as Gallup’s Christmas spending statistics indicate, while another 31% expect to spend between $100 and $499 and 19% plan to spend between $500 and $999.

“I think a lot of the people who come in here are aware that the supply chain is kind of gappy this year. And people have been very patient about it, they’ve been very understanding, and they’re pretty much buying up whatever we can get,” Backstrom said.


"People are just coming in and shopping like mad to get whatever they can."

— Ellen Backstrom


Over one-third of consumers expect their Christmas shopping to cost at least $1,000, according to the Gallup poll, and only 3% of those who celebrate Christmas plan to spend under $100 on gifts, while 9% said they wouldn’t spend anything.

“People are just coming in and shopping like mad to get whatever they can,” Backstrom said.

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The Olde Open Window owner Lynda Boyd, left, and manager Mary Whitehonn have noticed a positive uptick in shopping at their downtown Brainerd store this holiday season. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

A new chapter

Theresa Woodward is the owner of CatTale's Books & Gifts and feels blessed this Christmas.

“We have had great people in. The people stopping in have been kind and generous,” Woodward said. “We had a book signing today and someone brought her a beverage and someone brought her a gift. … There’s a level of giving that is heartwarming.”

RELATED: It’s not business as usual for Brainerd lakes area businesses

The new and used book store also sells greeting cards and candles to mineral, fossil and crystal specimens in its nearly two dozen years of being in business.

“It’s just been joyful and wonderful,” Woodward said as she stood Saturday behind the sales counter. “There’s a level of kindness coming out of people that is warming.”

RELATED: Brainerd lakes area businesses reopen amid coronavirus concern

About 56.3% of Americans had a budget for their 2019 Christmas shopping, while the rest didn’t, according to Motley Fool, a private financial and investing advice company, and among those who had a budget, the average cost was $878.21 and the rest spent about $992.33.

“We were open last year,” Woodward said. “And the last time I checked, the customer count was down, but the basket size is up a little bit for this year over last year. Part of that is we’ve seen a little in inflation, too, so a little bit of increase, here and there, over some other things.”

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Woodward said she had more curbside business last year during the pandemic and only one online order in the last week.

“My curbside last year, I did a lot of running things out for people who couldn’t go into a store or couldn’t go into a business, and I ran a lot of packages out to them in their cars,” Woodward said. “Otherwise, everybody else has been stopping in and picking up this year.”

RELATED: Bottleneck: Glass, shipping woes may dry up holiday liquor supplies

Woodward also had to contend with supply chain issues, but she placed her Christmas orders in April, May and June with a few trusted suppliers to minimize any disruptions to her inventory.

“There have been shortages for everything from printing — release dates that are postponed because printing is backed up a little bit — or something took a few extra weeks for something to come in,” Woodward said.

Holiday shopping

The Gallery first opened its doors for business in 1971 and the eclectic shop relocated to its current location on South Seventh Street in 1985 according to owner Rick Bjork.

“We have a little bit of everything,” Bjork said Saturday while sitting at a counter inside his place of business that sells men’s and women’s fashion, greeting cards, jewelry and novelty items.

Christmas accounts for a considerable share of the total winter holiday spending, which also includes Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, according to BalanceEverything.com, and winter holiday spending has been on the rise since 2007, reaching $729.1 billion in 2019.

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Rick Bjork, left, owner of the Gallery, talks with Wendy Vogelgesang in the music section of the store Monday, Dec. 20, 2021, in downtown Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“We’re seeing great sales. But I think the problem for a lot of places is to keep merchandise in stock because the demand is high and the availability isn’t as great as it has been in years past,” Bjork said.

“We have hired more people than a year ago, our (foot) traffic is up, and those are all positive things heading in the right direction — people getting more confidence to get out and go shop and get around rather than being stuck inside last year.”

Christmas spending by the numbers

  • Americans spend $852 on Christmas gifts on average.
  • The average Christmas spending per child is $330.
  • The median price for a real Christmas tree in the U.S. is $76.87.
  • After Christmas spending, 22.5% of Americans end up with debt.
  • U.S. consumers purchase 6.5 billion cards each year and spend between $7 billion and $8 billion on them, according to the Greeting Card Association, making Christmas the most popular holiday for greeting cards.
FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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