The art of decorating storefronts for the holidays is far from dead, but it’s not as common as it once was.
Retail districts and individual retailers are gearing up for the big shopping season, and in some cases have already decked their halls and windows for the occasion, with Christmas-specific themes or non-denominational winter motifs.
The Upper Union Street Business Improvement District put up its banners, wreaths and lights on Thursday.
The Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation is erecting a big Christmas tree across from Proctors on Monday and hanging more than a hundred lighted wreaths on poles Tuesday night.
And Jay Street’s merchants are decorating their storefronts to match the theme of The Daily Gazette Holiday Parade, “Movies.”
DSIC Executive Director Jim Salengo said the intent of the public decorations is to create a certain atmosphere.
“We’re really trying to evoke that classic holiday feel for downtown,” he said, noting that a lot of people not familiar with the city come downtown to Proctors and will see the display. “You only have one opportunity to make a first impression,” he said. The impression DSIC wants to make is that “Downtown is a destination that not only has some great businesses, but there’s somebody’s taking care of it.”
DSIC also works with the Jay Street Business Association to beautify the pedestrian-only strip right off State Street, adding lights and bows to the poles there. Association President Richard Mare said the association wants to do something decorative with the planters, but needs to work out a way that they’re not in the way of snowplows, should plowing be necessary.
Meanwhile, the merchants are decorating their storefronts with a “silver screen” theme to match the Nov. 19 parade. Mare usually goes all out at his own store, Downtown Designs, and will do so again this year, probably with a retro look.
“I’m doing two Hollywood scenes,” he said. “I don’t want to give too much away ... I think I’m going to go with the ’30s.”
The Upper Union Street BID puts up decorations and asks its members to decorate for the holidays in an attempt to tie the district together as a destination rather than a series of retailers along a street, said Sondra Stephens, owner of Sondra’s Fine Jewelry.
“We’re really trying to become a cohesive area,” she said. “We get people from all over.”
The jewelry store’s decorations this year are soft blue lights outside and a lot of glass ornamentation inside, mostly soft-stated and non-denominational, so as to appeal to the widest audience.
Stephens has been on Upper Union Street for 19 years and has been part of the continual effort to promote it, not least during the holidays. This season, she said, will feature a strong emphasis on the Shop Local movement and Small Business Saturday, the independent merchants’ response to Black Friday mobs at big-box stores.
Stephens and her son Anthony Kaczmarek do the decorating work themselves, which seems to be a fairly common arrangement around the city.
If there’s any business that could make a go of designing other people’s windows, it might be Experience and Creative Design, a home decor and interior design/consulting operation on Union Street. The store, a former supermarket, has been a winter wonderland for the last few weeks, crammed with holiday decor of every hue, size and shape for almost any taste and setting. Co-owner David Siders said they design and sell interior holiday displays for homes or design and lease them for businesses. But he doesn’t design storefronts because there just aren’t that many storefronts left and because those merchants who decorate their windows generally do it themselves.
In contrast to the dizzying array of inventory in his store, there are simple and elegant displays in his front windows: A polar bear family in one window, a snow princess in the next, and red cardinals on a white birch in the next.
“We try to keep the windows as simple as possible,” Siders said. “You’ve only got seven seconds as people pass by.”
Ballston Spa is another community where the merchants try to create a unified atmosphere for the holidays. They hold a friendly competition to see who can design the best window and the merchants are supposed to do their own work, rather than hire out.
After the sun goes down and the lights come on, a team of elves travel around judging the displays and the one with the most votes gets bragging rights, said Ellen Mottola at the Ballston Spa Business and Professional Association.
One of the most ambitious efforts each year comes from O’Brien Pharmacy — in part because it’s got the rare old-time display windows that run from the knee to above the head of anyone standing outside.
Owner Sean O’Brien said a lot of thought and effort goes into the display each year, but he can’t take credit for it — two now-former employees, Amy Crowssen and Kendra Donah, have been doing the design and the installation for years and will be back to do it again this month.
“The two young ladies who do it have both moved away. They’re coming back for Thanksgiving,” he said. “I’m always happy with what they do.”
Both left the area after they got married, but both will be home and will take a break from turkey to decorate the windows.
On Upper Union Street on Thursday, as the decorations were being prepared outside, Flowers By Jo-Ann was starting its holiday makeover inside.
“My window, we’re still Thanksgiving, but just today we started converting part of the shop to Christmas,” said owner Jo-Ann Mingo.
“I’m kind of going more with more of a snowflake scene instead of the traditional red, gold or silver,” she added. “It doesn’t really scream ‘Christmas’ — it’s more of the season.”
Two of Mingo’s neighboring businesses — Musler’s Fine Women’s Wear and Union Cafe — have hired her to do their holiday decorating this year. She’d like to do more of that line of work but finds a lot of small business owners in the same position she is in, watching expenses closely and not hiring out for things like window decoration.
Along with the visual beauty of holiday decorating is an emotional response that merchants try to evoke while decorating their stores inside and out.
“I do it because I love Christmas, first of all,” said Marie DeBrocky, owner of Head to Tail Pet Wellness Center.
“I think it brings people together more as a community, it makes shopping a better experience. It definitely brings more attention to my store.
“People like that we care enough to decorate our business.”
The theme outside her Schenectady shop this year is blue Christmas. Inside there are dogs owned by the staff lounging around in holiday-themed neckwear or even — if they seem particularly patient that day — Santa costumes.
“I think it brings a smile to people’s faces,” DeBrocky said.
Reach Gazette Business Editor John Cropley at 395-3104, [email protected] or @cropjohn on Twitter.