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Optimism was in full supply as local shopkeepers in Southern Vermont put their best foot forward at the start of Black Friday, the traditional beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Even the wet snow, gray clouds and rain couldn’t stop shoppers from getting out and shopping local.

“It’s been a little slow early, but it’s picking up,” says Liz Ganger, owner of Hawkins House on North Street in Bennington. “We’re thinking the snowy weather might keep people shopping locally, which would be good. My hope is that everything stays open and people shop locally as much as possible this season. “

Over in Brattleboro, Cara Wolff, of Cara Wolff Jewelry, said her store held a “shop small” event, in which she released a new collection of her hand-made work. “That went well, so well that unfortunately, I have very little in my store — which is a good problem to have, I guess,” she said. “I’ll have to get back to the bench and make more things. I think people are very excited to have special local gifts.”

What else are customers saying? “I generally hear still a lot of unease the way things are going in our world. People are feeling heavy. I hear that a lot,” she said. “They’re trying to stay hopeful live their lives, and get out.”

In Bennington, John Goyette of Main Street antiques is excited by the number of people coming through the door. “We are looking forward to a good Christmas shopping season. Downtown Bennington is coming to life. We’re glad to be part of that. We opened in February of 2020, just in time for everything to close down,” he said with a chuckle. “Things have bounced back, and this year has been good for us. Bennington is becoming a destination for antiquing. We now have six shops that cater to that crowd. We’ve been working toward promoting Bennington to be just that. We have a lot of high hopes. We’re bullish on Bennington right now and on the coming holiday season. We expect good things.”

Jane Outwater, owner of Knapps in Bennington, said Black Friday has been very steady. “I think people are much more comfortable going into smaller stores as opposed to big stores. I also think a lot of people are very cognizant of trying to support their local businesses. We’ve seen a great swell of that kind of support. It’s been wonderful.” Outwater added, “There’s a lot of positive things happening in Bennington. I hope that trend continues. Both my husband and I were born and raised here. We remember the days when you did all of your shopping locally. It’s not quite that way anymore, but hopefully, it will come back to that sort of thing more and more.

“There’s been a few issues with shipping so far, but things seem to have moved forward. Things are slowly coming in, and we are getting them on the shelves as fast as we can,” she said. Are you optimistic about this holiday season? “Absolutely,” she replied.

Over on Main Street in Brattleboro, Greg Worden, who co-owns Vermont Artisans Designs and Kitchen Sync with his wife, Suzy, said he expects good things in the coming shopping season. The Downtown Brattleboro Alliance’s “Plaid Friday” event was going well, he said. And he was looking forward to Small Business Saturday and downtown events planned for the rest of the season. “You say thank you for every day,” Worden said.

“More folks are out and about, it seems,” Worden observed. “People were happy to be out. I’ve been seeing people I haven’t seen for a couple of years coming back and saying it’s nice to come out, even with a mask.”

The governor recently signed legislation allowing individual towns to decide whether to implement a mask mandate or not this holiday season. Brattleboro wasted no time in putting the mandate in place. Bennington takes up the issue on Dec. 13. Vermont News and Media asked store owners and customers how they felt about a mask mandate and how that might affect business in this critical shopping season.

“We would strongly encourage all of our customers to wear masks,” said Liz Ganger of Hawkins House in Bennington. “All of our employees wear them, and we think it’s a good way to keep everybody healthy.”

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Diane Center of Bringing You Vermont thinks the mask mandate, should it come in Bennington, wouldn’t interfere with business. “We’ve been having people come in with and without masks. We’re very flexible. If someone asks us to mask up, we do that as a consideration to that customer.”

John Goyette of Main Street Antiques had a different take. “We’re not really in favor of that. We’ve all been vaccinated.” Do you think it might affect business if there were to be a mandate? “Yes, I think it would,” he said. “I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that.”

Beth Winwol of The Gift Garden in Bennington feels like it would be positive for everyone. “If we can all get the vaccine and wear masks, I think in the long run we can finally beat this thing and move forward, so I’m all for it.”

Cara Wolff has had a masking requirement in place since reopening her in-person store at 4 Elliot St., so Brattleboro’s passage of a local mask mandate hasn’t changed much for her. “I haven’t gotten a whole lot of push-back,” she said.

Worden has no problems with Brattleboro’s mask mandate. “We want people to be safe. That part’s good,” he said.

Beth Dow, owner of Gift Gallery in Bennington, said it was plain and simple. “I’m glad they’re deciding after this holiday weekend,” she says with a smile bordering on relief.

Diana Center, a worker at Bringing You Vermont in Bennington, added a note of humorous optimism. “I’m hoping this is a great Black Friday. I would like my job to continue,” she said with a big laugh.

In Bennington, Jenny Picallo, walking among the large flakes of snow on Main Street with her 10-month-old daughter, Marigold, on her arm and her son, Bixby, 2, holding her hand, was overjoyed at being here. “We came over from Massachusetts for the Thanksgiving weekend with the whole family. It’s so beautiful here. We just decided to walk around Main Street. And look in the windows.”

Are you going to go shopping?

“I’d love to. It seems like a great town to do that. Merry Christmas,” she said, as she’s pulled over to a window with a red fire truck by Bixby.

Nearly everyone we spoke to today had this one thing to say above all others: “Shop local and safe. Have a Merry Christmas.”