What a rush
Nora Singer of Scottsbluff, Neb., peruses the gift options at the 23rd Annual Missoula Renaissance Fair at the Holiday Inn Parkside on Friday morning.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Bargain-hungry customers storm the aisles

The day after Thanksgiving is one of the busiest shopping days of the year, and Missoula merchants were thankful Friday: There appeared to be plenty of shoppers to go around, from downtown, to Brooks Street, to Reserve.

Thanks to seasonal outlets such as the 23rd Annual Missoula Renaissance Fair, there were also more choices than usual for the shoppers. They could buy everything from reproductions of artwork commissioned by the Franklin Roosevelt presidency from the days of the Work Progress Administration, to handmade swizzlesticks at the fair at the Holiday Inn Parkside.

Thousands of customers were waiting for businesses to unlock doors Friday morning, and some turned the key as early as 6 a.m. Bon-Macy's store manager Rich Boberg reported "several hundred" people waiting for the Bon doors to open at 6.

"I think the weather definitely helped," Boberg said. "It wasn't as icy or snowy as it has been in past years. Plus, the economy is picking up. We're having a great day."

"It's been fantastic," said Bob Ward and Sons store manager Mark Anderson, who said about 70 people were waiting when he opened the doors at 7 a.m. "It's been steady all day."

"We're having the best day," said Joe Purcell, store general manager at Sears. "It's been a gangbuster from this morning on. I haven't seen business like this in a long time."

Like many stores, Sears ran special sales in the morning - in its case, from 6 to 11 a.m. - then came back with price-reducing coupons for apparel in the afternoon.

Southgate Mall was on a pace to exceed its best numbers of 2002. Marketing director Trisha Piedalue said it looked like the mall could draw 18,000 shoppers Friday. Its highest traffic count in 2002 was 16,300, which occurred the Monday before Christmas.

"Most retailers I've talked to have reported an increase in sales, some as high as 20 percent," Piedalue said. "Stores kicked out those early morning bargains, and those have really driven the traffic. A lot of people must have (just) gotten out of bed to get them."

She said when she came to work at 7:30 a.m., she couldn't find anyplace to park in the mall parking lot.

Lindsey Kehr of Target said there were 150 shoppers lined up by 5:30 a.m., and "it's been nonstop, a very busy day. We're ahead of sales from last year."

Non-chain stores were also hopping. "We've had an incredibly busy morning," said Jeannette Ross, owner of Moose Creek Mercantile. "We've just been flying around the store helping people. Everything's great."

"It's going well, quite well," said Kelly Archibald-Wilson at Rockin Rudy's. "After this many years, we know what the day after Thanksgiving is like."

For the 23rd year, the day also kicked off the Renaissance Fair, where more than 70 artists from five states offered jewelry, woodwork, pottery, wreaths, candles, soaps, door harps, huckleberry products, stained and cut glass, sculpture and much more.

Debra Ruggiero and her daughter Casey make the fair a yearly stop, because these days it's the only time potter Jon Bruns of Kalispell brings his work to Missoula.

"Years ago he had a booth on the courthouse lawn here," Debra said. "That's where we first saw his stuff, and liked it. Three or four years ago we found him here, so we keep coming back."

"It's an art form we collect," said Casey.

"A good percentage" of his business comes from repeat customers, Bruns said. "There gets to be people you know. I've done this show for 15 to 20 years, however long it's been running, and since this is the only show I do in Missoula I do see people who come back every year."

Bruns said he hits only about half a dozen shows a year these days, enough to "support my golf habit."

The fair is packed with all sorts of offerings. Stonecutter Keith Snider of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, makes vases, clocks, candleholders and more out of rocks. Jerry and Kelly Anderson of Townsend offer benches framed by buggy wheels. Jason and Dawn Loughran of Kooskia, Idaho, sell antler-accessorized items, from kitchen utensils (the handles are made from elk antlers), to lamps.

Wood carvings of moose and people standing 10 or more feet high can be had from Libby artist Russ Harmon. Linda McCullough of Ronan makes Santa Clauses - cowboy Santas, fishing Santas, Santa riding a grizzly bear - using angora, real fur and real leather. Southfork Design of McCall, Idaho, displays the WPA artwork reproduction, old ski resort photographs by Ray Atkeson, old maps framed in wood, plus high-end beds and trunks.

The reproductions are mostly artwork used to promote America's national parks. Several thousand artists were hired to produce various work for the federal government during the days of the WPA, according to Brent Kahmann of Southfork Design, and a former ranger from Mount Rainier National Park who rescued what he could of the artwork done for the parks.

The fair continues Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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