By Janice Morse
Cincinnati Enquirer staff writer
LEBANON, Ohio - Holiday shoppers who are feeling mauled at the malls are finding refuge, charm and unusual wares in Lebanon, one of the region's few remaining real downtowns.
"We don't do malls," declared Aurelia Rice of Fort Mitchell. "We come here and kind of make a day of it."
Rice recently drove about 45 minutes to join two companions for shopping and to eat lunch beneath the white painted tin ceiling in Copperfield's Coffee Café. Yet shopkeepers say many of Lebanon's residents are strangers to the historic downtown area. They constantly hunt for new ways to attract locals.
In an era of big chain stores offering discounts and Web sites providing convenience, independent retailers such as those in Lebanon, Hyde Park and Bellevue must surmount tough odds to remain afloat.
But some national trends seem to be working in their favor: "mall backlash" and the quest for an unusual gift that doesn't appear mass-produced, experts say.
"Lebanon offers a point of distinction" for the 15-county Tristate region, says Scott Usitalo, director of the Cincinnati USA Regional Tourism Network. The town features three dozen shops and "the rare dining experience of the Golden Lamb," Ohio's oldest inn and restaurant.
"Traditional shopping centers - malls - are declining," says Eugene Fram, professor of marketing at New York's Rochester Institute of Technology.
Old malls are dying. And the new "lifestyle malls" are trying to build from scratch the kind of small-town ambiance that places like Lebanon already have, Fram said.
"America is 'over-stored' and 'over-malled,' " Fram said.
Nationwide, shopping centers now offer 20 square feet of retail space per person - quadruple the 1970 ratio. That glut leaves some people longing for more relaxed shopping experiences, he said.
Vicky Tappy, 54, who combined Copperfield's cafe with Dickens' Book Shop at 3 S. Broadway St. in October, said business has been brisk.
"It's a quality-of-life-type thing. People want service. They want attention. They want atmosphere. It's the new Norman Rockwell," she said.
City leaders have been trying to maintain the downtown area's look and feel with landscaping, brick sidewalks and old-style lampposts. However, convenience often trumps ambiance.
Traditionally, Lebanon shops have closed around 5 p.m., which shuts out about 70 percent of Lebanon residents, who commute to jobs outside the city, says Mayor Amy Brewer.
Now, several Lebanon shopkeepers are trying to lure more local customers by extending hours to 8:30 or 9 p.m. at least one day a week.
Shopkeepers say the holiday season has been brisk - a welcome change from the summer and fall.
"We've had a down period, but I think we're coming back," said Sandy Fuston of Waynesville, who owns the Village Ice Cream Parlor with her sister.
"When gas prices were high, people were watching their pennies."
With more reasonable prices at the pump, many businesses have been reporting improved sales, said Sara Arsenau, executive director of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce.
Lebanon's shopping district has survived decades of ups and downs in part because the mix of stores has changed with the times, Brewer said.
Years ago, Lebanon was "mostly antique shops and hardly any restaurants," she said. "Now there are all kinds of specialty stores and more places to get a really good meal."
Joan Townsend has run the Oh Suzanna store for more than 20 years, selling quilts, linens, jewelry and gifts. She says she has stayed in business because she has found a niche, cultivates long-term customers and keeps things "fun and fresh."
Customer-turned-clerk Laura Rizzo, 19, says she was a toddler riding in a stroller when she first met Townsend.
Now home on winter break from Ohio State University, Rizzo said she loves working and shopping in Lebanon because, "It's a much more one-on-one basis, with people actually helping you, instead of being in a mall and running into all kinds of people who are in that 'Grinch' mood."
Lebanon offers Rizzo the opportunity to buy "things for my friends that they've never seen before."
But Rizzo confesses a major problem: "I don't take home much of a paycheck - because I spend it all here."