New York Times - Economy

Town Fights to Turn Retail Tide at a Little Mall That Might

After being hired in April, Ms. Leonard set out to get control of the place. She said she had confronted a pimp who appeared to have brought “his girls” to the nail salon, and told a pack of teenagers who she believed were dealing drugs that she would have them arrested.

The harder task was filling up the empty storefronts and giving residents a reason to return.

She found a new kind of anchor: a group of residents who had formed a company, North Country Showcase, to sell wares from local artists. It has filled the vacated Express store with bowls, mittens, mugs and miniature wooden reindeer earrings carved by a retired technician at the power company.

An Amish farmer delivers handmade fly swatters and other goods to the store by bus since he does not drive a car. The store writes him a letter if they sell out and need him to make more because he does not use a phone.

“Quite frankly, I am tired of our future being controlled by corporations that live in other places, whether it is Alcoa or these corporate stores,” said Ms. St. Hilaire, president of North Country Showcase.

Holiday sales at the store have been twice what Ms. St. Hilaire expected. One customer bought a life-size wooden statue of a firefighter, paying for it with $ 700 in dollar bills she had saved in a plastic shopping bag.

Photo
Melissa Conners at her store, Divalissa’s Homemade Treats, where she sells popcorn and other snacks. Of the personal touch she offers, she said, “You can’t get that from shopping online.” Credit Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The New York Times

At the stand selling homemade popcorn, Melissa Conners said she gets calls from parents asking about their children’s favorite flavor because they want a surprise to slip into Christmas stockings.

“You can’t get that from shopping online,” said Ms. Conners, whose business card identifies her as a “popcornologist.”

Lenny Nesbit and his partner, Jason Foster, run an event-planning business, Elite Events by Lenny, at St. Lawrence Center. They got a break on their rent for arranging the mall’s Christmas decorations. They are also raising a 7-year old son, who likes to spend time in the mall’s hair salon watching women get their hair washed while his fathers work nearby.

“This is our home,” said Mr. Nesbit, who came up with the idea for the winter wonderland at the former Sears site.

There has been talk about replacing the ice rink with a turf arena for indoor sports, according to the local public radio station, which has closely chronicled the mall’s attempted rebirth. Some employees recently spotted a group of men in business suits who they believed were acting as scouts for big retailers seeking to locate in Massena.

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