Holiday Shopping Connects Customers to Community

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By Wendy Migdal

Holiday shopping, or any shopping really, reminds one of the line from the song that goes “You say tomayto, I say tomahto.” Some people think of shopping as a chore, while other view it as therapy. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, it’s likely that you’ll need to participate in the activity at some point this season. Why not take advantage of the abundance of small shops in the Prince William area to complete your gift checklist? You won’t just be supporting a local business and finding that perfect gift, though those are great reasons to shop small. You’ll also be making those age-old human connections that come with buying and selling in the live marketplace. 

The Human Connection

Christmas lights on Manassas Railway Depot

Patricia Kouttab, co-owner of Kerbobble Toys in Old Town Manassas, sees this connection on many levels. “Our store is very unique and feels like a home because it has rooms. People often come here to relax and chat. It’s their happy place,” she says of her business, which sells new, classic, and vintage toys and games. Kouttab’s husband Nadim and her daughter are often there as well. Theirs is a success story one doesn’t hear every day — the Kouttabs started their business in December 2019 and it is doing well today. 

Some of their most popular items are from the 80s and include Generation One Transformers, My Little Pony, and individual Pokemon cards. Patricia says, “Parents come in and show their children, ‘This is what I used to play with.’ And some kids will get into what their parents played with. It’s also a great place for kids to shop. We have some items for 50 cents and parents can give their children a budget to find a gift for their sibling, and they can have fun doing that.” 

For those of us who share those memories of being taught as children how to give, it’s the kind of experience that cannot be replaced by internet shopping. Pam Konwin, owner of Elements in Occoquan, thinks that the proliferation of the internet and the effects of the COVID years have had an impact on those wanting to go into small business. “A lot of young people don’t want to have a brick-and-mortar store anymore. They want to do everything online,” she says. Yet she believes most customers actually want to see and feel what they’re buying before they buy it. “Sometimes people come in and they don’t even know what they’re looking for, until they see it,” she says. Speaking of her store, she adds, “It’s a great place to get girlfriend gifts. People say I have the best scarf collection around. We have a lot of funky items. You’ll find something you wouldn’t find at a department store, that’s for sure.”

One-of-a-Kind Gifts

If you have someone who’s hard to buy for, or if you’re the one who has a hard time being satisfied giving a present without pizzazz, then shopping small and local is your answer. Candy Murphy of Details in Haymarket agrees. When asked if she would consider her aesthetic to be trendy, classic or off-beat, she says, “Yes,” and laughs. “We really have something for everyone — clothing, jewelry, things for the home, hostess gifts. And there’s a little bit of everything style-wise.” Details has been in business for over 20 years and started out as a home décor store. The inventory expanded over the years. Since Candy Murphy bought it two years ago, she’s also broadened the clothing line.   

Puzzle Palooza in Occoquan is another example of the one-of-a-kind store that you won’t find in a mall. Their 3,500 products range from a two-piece puzzle for very young children to a 42,000 piece puzzle for adults. “It is not uncommon for us to hear new customers exclaim, ‘Oh my gosh this place is amazing,’ when they walk in the door for the first time,” says owner Donna Sherman. “Customers comment on the wide variety of items that we have. We love talking to our customers about their favorite puzzles and games, as well as answering their questions.” And the sharing of information is a two-way street. “Conversations with our customers are a great way for us to learn about different games and brands that we may not have heard of,” she adds. Many customers also come for the games, crystal art, Ty Beanies and other items, and appreciate the punch card program that earns them discounts on future purchases. 

Echoes, the Manassas Museum’s store, is yet another great place to find one-of-a-kind items. There are items for the history lover, such as books, salt and pepper shakers shaped like railroad lanterns, and toys for the history-loving child. Echoes specializes in Manassas-centric items, such as prints, maps, mugs, T-shirts, a Cat’s Meow of the train station, and much more. The store also carries items made by local artisans, including jewelry and honey. 

Handmade Items

Another important connection is that between the maker and the user. In a time when so many of the products we use in daily life are made in factories halfway around the world, people in the Prince William area are lucky to have so many small businesses to patronize in which goods are made locally. Jane McCollum, co-owner of Manassas Clay, says, “We have 40 local potters who sell their work in our store. Customers can find anything from functional stoneware to handmade ornaments, which are very popular at the holidays. They can find inexpensive spoon rests and larger, more expensive bowls and vases.” 

Shining Sol Candle Company

Only a few steps down the street are the hand-poured candles at Shining Sol Candle Company (where you can even pour your own candle). Many art galleries carry not only fine art, but other gifts made by local artisans. Or your gift to someone could be the opportunity to make something themselves, such as a gift card to Paint Your Heart Out in Occoquan. 

And let’s not forget food. Homemade sweets go over well with almost any recipient, picky or not. Both Occoquan and Manassas have several stores that sell tasty treats, such as chocolate candy or the gourmet popcorn of the Popcorn Monkey. Pick up a bottle of locally made wine while you’re in town at Aroma in Manassas or Aroma II in Haymarket, the tasting rooms of Morais Vineyards. The Bee Store in Tackett’s Mill carries all-natural, locally produced honey and skin care products.  And for the foodie in your life, how about some olive oil or vinegar from Manassas Olive Oil Company or So Olive in Occoquan? 

For those seeking even more handmade goods, the Occoquan Holiday Artisan Market takes place on Dec. 2 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Dec. 3 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in River Mill Park. About a hundred artisans will be selling their wares, including jewelry, bath and body, food, fine art, and more. It’s also the last weekend for the Shop, Dine, and Win promotion in which shoppers who spend $10 or more at six different participating businesses will be entered into a drawing for a gift card to local businesses. 

Good to Know

If you’re short on time but still want to support local businesses, both the Town of Occoquan and City of Manassas have gift card options. Manassas offers the Heart Beat card (short for the slogan, “Historic Heart, Modern Beat”), an e-card that can be purchased online at choosemanassas.org. Currently, 30 merchants and restaurants participate, and the same card can be redeemed at multiple stores. 

The Town of Occoquan offers the Occoquan Business Partners Gift Certificate for $25 each. Currently, 27 merchants and restaurants participate. It can be purchased online and shipped to your address or picked up at Hitchcock Paper Co. 

Finally, a little help with traffic. In Occoquan, you can catch the free shuttle from VDOT Commuter Lot at the corner of Rt. 123 and Old Bridge Road, which will take you to the shops. Remaining dates this season include Dec. 2, 3, 9, and 16, and the shuttle runs about every 20 minutes until 8 p.m., since many stores are open late. And if you happen to live in the Manassas Park area, now might be a good time to try out OmniRide’s new microtransit service, which works a lot like Uber and Lyft (but is free).  

Since humans first figured out how to specialize in making a product, humans have gathered in public marketplaces to trade. Where once it seems that the big box stores were taking away from the mom-and-pop stores, it now seems as though the internet may be having a bigger impact. And even though the internet makes it possible for individual craftspeople to sell goods online, there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction. This season, take advantage of the wealth of small shops in our area, and shop small. 

Wendy Migdal is a freelance writer who has lived in the Northern/Central Virginia area since 2000.

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