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Local shops in Oceanside and Island Park gear up for the holidays

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On the afternoon of Black Friday, Charlie St. Aubin, an Island Park resident and a longtime employee of A&T Garden Center, sawed balsam and fir trees for families eager to decorate for the holidays.

St. Aubin grew up in Long Beach, has a degree in horticulture and has been working at A&T for 20 years. “I’m lucky to have a job that I like so much,” he said.

During the holiday season, St. Aubin helps sell trees big and small — he’s grown a “cult following” among young customers for cutting small trees. Kids come to the store and say, “Make me a tree!” he said.

“All of our employees live in Island Park and Long Beach,” owner Sean Newman noted. “People who open these small businesses, we do it because we love the town we open up in.”

A&T is one of many small businesses in Oceanside and Island Park — bakeries, liquor stores, restaurants, beauty salons, gift shops, clothing stores and more — that have had to adapt through the years as the economy and consumer habits have changed. For these stores, the holiday season remains an important part of their business.

“The holidays get us through the winter,” Newman said, “and spring gets us through the rest of the year.”

American Express launched the Shop Small Movement 10 years ago after the rise of online shopping. Then it began Small Business Saturday, which encourages people to shop locally on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Since then, the movement has spread and raised awareness about the positive impacts of “shopping small.” Supporters argue that shopping at local brick-and-mortar stores ensures that money spent is going into the town or village by financially supporting the people who live and work there. The Shop Small Movement estimates that for every dollar spent in a small business at the United States, 67 cents remains in the community.

“Most of the business owners in Island Park are your neighbors and friends,” said Barbra Rubin-Perry, president of the Island Park Chamber of Commerce. “They live here, they work here. When you’re shopping local, you’re supporting the entire community.”

Shopping locally also encourages a lively downtown, where neighborhood businesses are thriving rather than being boarded up, community members say. “If it wasn’t for small business, we wouldn’t have Oceanside,” said Maria Heller, secretary and treasurer of Oceanside Chamber of Commerce.

A&T Garden Center has been in Island Park since 1988. In January, Newman opened a florist, A&T Floral Studio, which offered events, workshops and floral arrangements in a smaller setting. The store closed in September because rent and other maintenance costs made it financially unsustainable.

“I was losing too much money,” Newman said. “Community support was not there, which is interesting because the support is great for [the garden center]. But we still do all the same flower stuff, just out of here.”

Around the holidays, the shop sells poinsettias and Christmas trees, as well as some decorations — they’ve cut down on string lights since 2005 because chain stores like Home Depot have eaten sales of that item, as well as ornaments. “We used to have [two whole] walls of lights,” Newman said. All the lights on sale are by the counter this year.

Newman feels only some competition with big-box stores selling “lower-end trees” — but really, the pressure is on at all times of the year, he said.

For local candy stores, November through May is crucial for business. It begins with chocolate turkeys, speeds up with chocolate Santas, continues with Valentine’s boxes and closes out with Easter bunnies and Mother’s Day treats. “The holidays are huge,” said Jackie Brown, owner of Emile’s Candies on Merrick Road in Oceanside. “This is our time.”

About 60 percent of Emile’s business is done around those big gift-giving months, so the shop has to go big according to the season, Brown said.

On Nov. 30, her second anniversary as owner of Emile’s, Brown stocked the shelves with small, Christmas-themed chocolates. She and her husband, Mike, took over the 66-year-old business from its second owner, Patrick Quinn, after he died in 2017.

Brown grew up in Baldwin and visited Emile’s as a child. Her mother, who’s from Oceanside, also frequented the shop in her youth. “Their families wanted to hand it off to someone who loves it just as much,” Brown said, re-ferring to Quinn and Emile Wageknecht, the original owner. “We’re trying to improve upon what was already here.”

Brown has kept all of Emile’s original recipes. To keep business moving forward, however, she has added more variety to the shop’s holiday offerings. From now through the new year, there will be different molded chocolates and packaged treats available to purchase every week, starting with stocking stuffer-sized candies and ending with larger baskets, she noted.

In addition, Brown’s goal is to have a website for online orders. For now, customers, including fellow local businesses, put in orders by phone or in person.

“You won’t get a fresh product like this anywhere, and we try to be creative,” Brown said. “Everybody has their own favorite, so there’s no number one seller. And everyone that comes here has a story because they’ve been coming here for years — the grandparents come, then their kids and their kids . . .”

Hope’s Land of Candy in Island Park has been open since 2014. The old-fashioned shop has garnered support by posting photos on social media and creating unusual experiences for customers.

“When you walk into the store, you’re walking into the past,” said owner Joan Cohen. “It brings back memories for older folks who remember going on dates or hanging out after school in the candy shops. For kids, they can play with the toys from years ago.”

November and December account for about 15 percent of Cohen’s sales. “It’s a really large part of our business,” she said.

To prepare for the holiday season, Cohen has posted all of the store’s offerings online. Like A&T and Emile’s, Hope’s Land of Candy has a variety of options to choose from. Baskets start at $5, and they also sell “blast-from-the-past” candy and vintage sodas.

Jeff Grann, owner of Temptations for Her, a women’s clothing boutique in Oceanside, cited the experience as a reason to visit his store. “I like to think that shopping here is like the ‘Cheers’ of clothes shopping,” Grann said.

Temptations for Her employs all local women who chat with customers and create a social atmosphere. Plus, they help customers find exactly what they need.

The holiday season doesn’t make or break the boutique, Grann noted, and big-box stores like Kohl’s or T.J. Maxx in Oceanside don’t affect business much because they offer “a different product,” he said.

The biggest challenges in the store’s 34 years in business have stemmed from economic issues. While the shop has recovered from dwindling sales during the 2008 recession, there are now a few items that they pay about 25 percent more for because of recent U.S. tariffs in China. “Business is never easy,” Grann said. “There are times you do well and times it gets very slow.”

Between personal experiences, a variety of options and quality of product, mom-and-pop shop owners hope that what they offer entices their neighbors to shop local and, ultimately, help make their town a better place to live. “If you go to a school sports or Little League game, all the sponsors are small businesses,” Grann said. “It’s like a marriage — small business and community.”