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Retail rings, and merchants feeling merry

The national economy may be skating towards thin ice this winter, but local retailers don't seem too nervous.

If anything, they appear more likely to skate home to a mug of hot cocoa than plunge into the frigid waters of economic trouble.

"I'm pleasantly surprised -- business has been very good," said Ann Zuehlke, owner of Heights business E.T.C.

"It's going better than we anticipated," agreed Paul Doty, manager of Hi-School Pharmacy, "but I wouldn't say we're above the national level."

Both hinted at some degree of consumer trepidation.

"I really think layoffs and the fact that people are anticipating cutbacks after the first of the year are scaring people a little," said Doty.

This doesn't necessarily hinder spending, according to Zuehlke. It just makes consumers more careful.

"People aren't buying things right off," she said. "They're more apprehensive -- they come in and look around, come back later, or send someone in, but the money is still flowing."

It might even be flowing better than in recent holiday seasons.

"Last year was one of our best," said Mark Mason, co-owner of Doug's Sports, "and last time I checked, we're pretty much on schedule to match that, maybe a little ahead."

Most retailers stand to benefit from a "stay-at-home" sentiment this holiday season, prompted by reaction to Sept. 11 and the recent clouds of billowing snow.

"When it snows and the weather gets bad we do really well," said Mason, whose business prospered last year in spite of a lack of snow. "This has been a great winter, and we might have surpassed last year's totals by now if not for the economy. I just hope the snow keeps up."

The events of Sept. 11 are also keeping people close to home, and caused some consumers to reprioritize their lives, said Zuehlke.

"People want to spend their money on comforting things now," she explained. "Handcrafts like quilts are becoming more important, and because of that I guess I'm in a good business at the present."

Ken Apland of Apland Jewelers suggested that the Christmas season caught people somewhat off guard.

"It shook people up -- they weren't ready for it until the first week of December," he said. "But we've been having a really great holiday season. Things have picked up tremendously."

He shared Zuehlke's outlook on consumer priorities: "If anything, people are putting more thought into the gifts they're buying for the most important people in their lives. They're looking for things of lasting value, and that's helping my business."

Waucoma Bookstore manager Rose Kelly was thankful for the continued local support.

"We feel very fortunate to have a strong customer base who shop locally and support us," Kelly said. "Hood River definitely has people who are hurt by the economy right now and we're all concerned. But our economy here is fairly stable because it's so balanced."

She credited the Downtown Association's "First Fridays" program for enticing locals to the area with extended hours and in-store artists.

Overall, merchants were optimistic about the coming weeks.

"People are at a kind of stopping point," said Catherine Kelter, owner of The Wine Sellers. "They're looking at their lifestyles and at what is important and what's not. They're trying to keep things on a more moderate scale, and business is brisk."

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