Many downtown storefronts are decorated for the holidays as Christmas approaches and merchants flex their creative minds to build a festive atmosphere and (hopefully) customer traffic.
It’s an annual tradition for many businesspeople, and a chance to help create a unified business district for the holiday season.
One of the most heavily decorated downtowns each December is in Saratoga Springs, and one of the most ambitious displays there is put on by a Broadway toy store.
Linda Ambrosino, owner of G. Willikers for 32 years, mounts separate displays in each of her four storefront windows each year.
“This year each window is a different Christmas song and you have to guess which songs the windows are,” she said. The visual clues include a giant mug of hot chocolate and children coming down a staircase on Christmas morning.
Previous years’ displays have been themed to well-known children’s books such as Jan Brett’s “The Mitten” or original works such as a store employee’s tale about a child’s letter to Santa.
“Sometimes we just do colors and get fancy with that,” Ambrosino said.
Like most merchants, the G. Willikers staff does the design and construction themselves, and starts the planning as early as August. Ambrosino’s husband, Larry, builds any moving mechanisms, such as this year’s cocoa cup.
When many downtown merchants come together with their projects, and a city or business district does additional decorations in public spaces, it creates an atmosphere greater than the sum of its parts, she said.
“I think it comes together, it really does,” Ambrosino said. “We have an amazing downtown business association. Almost to a T, everybody cares about this community … I think it’s because we’re mostly owner-operated.”
It has the effect of bringing people out to shop or at least browse, she said.
“Do you want to sit around the computer screen with your family or walk around downtown and talk to people? You want to have that contact,” she said.
“It reminds me of being a kid,” she recalled of her childhood in a small Pennsylvania city with a vibrant downtown. “Even if you couldn’t afford stuff, you walked around and looked at stuff.”
Decades later, and now a grandmother, she still feels that buzz in a decorated downtown Saratoga Springs.
Just this year, Ambrosino heard what she thought were carolers outside, but it was actually people singing what they guessed were the songs in her windows.
“I thought, ‘just by doing my windows I can get people singing,’” she said.
The Ballston Spa Business and Professional Association encourages window decorating by its member merchants and honors some of the best each year.
One of those picked out for praise in 2016 was Corina Contemporary Jewelry. Owner Corina Oberai is back at it this year.
“My daughter and I usually put our heads together and have some fun,” she said. “I think it just makes the store look happy and says that I’m ready for the season.”
With the window decorations, street decorations, Christmas parade and tree-lighting, the village tries hard to create an inviting and festive atmosphere, Oberai said.
“This is why people come to small businesses. It’s a lot more fun than shopping at the big boxes.”
Oberai spoke to The Daily Gazette as she prepared her 2017 display.
“We’ve got lots of boxes collected, little jewelry boxes that are orphans,” she said. “We’re going to wrap them all in my classic look.”
That’s silver paper with purple ribbon.
Then she’ll suspend them in midair around a stack of birch logs.
Downtown Schenectady is another place where holiday decorations adorn the streetscape.
Richard Mare, president of the Jay Street Business Association and owner of Downtown Designs, has moved his store twice on the pedestrian-only stretch of Jay: Once to get more visibility, the next time to get bigger windows.
“One of the things I enjoy most is doing the windows,” he said. “I think windows are a good draw because people notice them. Even if they don’t actually come in when they see the windows, subconsciously it stays with them.”
Downtown Designs sells vintage and custom women’s clothing, jewelry and accessories, and does a lot of business online with customers in the United Kingdom and Asia. Mare wants to build his on-site retail sales, so he tries to catch the attention of people walking past to Proctors for a show or Johnny’s for a meal.
“That’s a crowd I’d like to tap into more.”
This year’s display is “Naughty and Nice” — in one window a naughty vintage ensemble and in the other a custom gown that Mare made (from scratch!) in a single morning.
Mare has a long background in holiday store displays, having once worked in that capacity for a company that operated 81 pop-up Christmas stores. So he gets asked for advice.
“I help a lot of people on the street do things when they need it,” he said.
On lower State Street in Schenectady, Vincent Capasso Jr. mounts a beautiful display in the storefront window of his law firm office each year.
It stands out from the others because he’s not trying to sell anything or attract customers inside.
Also, the display (created by longtime employee Donna Schultz) varies each year but is always a variation of the manger scene — Jesus Christ’s birth. It won’t have a snowman or a Santa or dancing teddy bears.
Capasso, a devout Roman Catholic, is trying to honor the reason for the season: Christ.
With the historic downtown building he bought and restored in 1979, he also tries to improve the landscape of his hometown.
“I’m a very proud Schenectadian,” he said.
The display prompts passersby to walk in and offer compliments, Capasso said, and also draws praise from clients, Christian and non-Christian alike.
By late November, the team at Impressions of Saratoga still had not decided what their window display would be this year. The blue-and-white decor installed for Small Business Saturday gave them a little time to think it through, but decision time was near.
Two things factor into the display each year, co-owner Maddy Zanetti said: Horses and antiques or other distinctive objects.
“We always try to incorporate the horse theme,” she said. Part of the fun is the planning and construction, she added: “A lot of time goes into it, and we all enjoy it.”
The memorabilia-souvenir-collectable shop, sort of an everything-Saratoga store, tries to use its own merchandise in the holiday display, but also will buy or borrow components — Saratoga Fireplace & Stove loaned a key part of last year’s display, which depicted Santa coming down a chimney.
“We have a friend who does a lot of antiquing and we find a lot of great items from him,” Zanetti said.
Entering her first holiday season as a merchant is Jenn Dugan, who opened The Makeup Curio in Schenectady in October.
She went with oversized wreaths, garlands and balls for her windows facing onto State Street.
“I spent a little bit of money but I needed them anyway,” she said. Her mother helped her install them.
Dugan likes the visual impact.
“The windows have to be big ... almost theatrical. There’s not many of those left,” she said.
“I actually think these holiday decorations are a little more noticeable than my normal windows.”
Dugan said she’s gotten compliments and some walk-ins thanks to the windows.
“It gets the person, the patron walking by into much more of a holiday mood.”
As much as the creative details, the spirit of the decoration is important. Each year, Coffee Planet puts a Christmas tree in the window of its prominent storefront in Ballston Spa, then adds other decorations inside and puts holiday items on the menu.
“I think it raises the spirit of people coming in for the holiday season,” owner Clifford Baum said. “It’s always exciting for us.”
Beyond his front doors, he said, the collective effort of other merchants and the village government make Ballston Spa a festive place in December.
Jessica Shambo, owner of Canvas Hair Salon in Ballston Spa, said she typically decorates her window around Thanksgiving, after picking out a Christmas tree for home with her husband and their sons.
“Every holiday I do something different,” she said. “This year I’m doing a candies display.
“People have been so complimentary, and look forward to it.”
Shambo enjoys contributing to a warm and welcoming holiday streetscape with her front window.
“We’re a small business, a small village,” she said. “We’re down to earth here.”