By Linda Murphy

The trees along Hope Street were illuminated just for this evening, luminaria on the sidewalk designated stores serving homemade goodies and glasses of wine, and most of all, customers — hundreds of them — made their way through the shops in Bristol, R.I., for its 11th annual Holiday Preview.

Bristol merchants learned more than a decade ago that holiday-themed shopping events, like the Holiday Preview on Nov. 16, get customers out looking and buying. “It’s fun and it does get you in the spirit,” said Westport resident Ellie Wickes, who was out shopping with her friend, Jeanne Morris, of Dartmouth.

Linda Arruda, co-owner of Paper, Packaging and Panache, a store that specializes in paper-related products and assorted gifts, was one of the first merchants to start the evening of extended shopping hours and merchant hospitality. On this night, Arruda said she was paying homage to her Portuguese heritage by serving up squares of homemade sweetbread pudding and tawny port.

“It’s one of the biggest days of the year,” she said of the event that gives customers a chance to “preview” Christmas shopping with an extended four hours of business.

Arruda and Diane Sullivan, who owned a store called Muzzie’s Attic, started with the idea of getting customers downtown to do a holiday preview of what might end up on their list in 2000. And it worked, she recalled. The following year, it was moved to a Friday night before Thanksgiving and they got more than 800 people. It was officially dubbed the Holiday Preview.

Last year, the Bristol Merchants Association event became even more festive when the Town Council agreed to turn the white Christmas lights on the downtown trees on for one night only before the town’s Grand Illumination/Christmas tree lighting on Dec. 2. The paper luminaria outside participating stores and shops also started last year.

“It’s a wonderful girl’s night out. People make it a night and go out to dinner after,” said Arruda, adding she expects more than 1,000 people again this year. “This is the fourth quarter make it or break it time for small businesses.”

Customers on this night were also taking in the changes in the downtown that has experienced a renaissance over the past year with a recently paved Hope Street, new shops, and a shuffling of existing businesses from side streets to prime spots along the historic road.

Diagonally across the street from Paper Packaging and Panache, Sarah Redmond, owner of the relocated Hair, Heart and Soul, was taking in the opportunity on this night to show off the hair salon that has evolved over the past year or so into a complex of beauty and shopping with three floors of salon, massage and spa services. The sangria was flowing and a table brimmed over with treats in the business’ latest addition: a boutique with Alex and Ani jewelry, trendy hats, scarves and other giftware.

“It’s a great way for people to experience what we have here in Bristol,” said Redmond, of the night of festivity and hospitality.

Revival, another store that relocated to Hope Street, was showing off its new location for the first time during the holiday preview. Owners Victoria and Domenic Fonseca greeted customers seeing the European-inspired, predominately black-and-white themed gift shop with slices of black-and-white cake. “It’s always busy and it’s a real girls’ night out,” said Victoria Fonseca, who opened the shop in its original location on Thames Street several years ago. “I get customers from as far away as Boston and western Massachusetts. The bed and breakfasts are always booked this weekend.”

“I think it’s a great idea. I never miss it,” added Revival customer Mary Doughney, who was out shopping with her husband.

In Bristol, the holiday festivities and shopping are followed up again on Dec. 2 with the town’s tree lighting and as an added incentive to return downtown again, customers get raffle tickets for every $25 worth of shopping during the season (the tickets were doubled on the Holiday Preview night) and they have to be present for the Snowflake raffle on Sunday Dec. 16 or 17.

On Dec. 8, the holiday event shopping gets under way in the Flint section of Fall River with the Flint Merchants Association’s 22nd annual decorated window contest and the Flint Neighborhood Association’s holiday block party.

Carlos Cesar, president of the Flint Neighborhood Association, said a stretch of Pleasant Street from Cash Street to Thomas Street will be closed so families can partake of the activities, which include a moonwalk for younger kids, free hot chocolate and entertainment from bands at T.J.’s Music Academy. Students from area schools were also invited to sing Christmas carols.

Cesar, who is also vice president of the Flint Merchants Association, said the festive day draws additional customers to the area’s myriad businesses, from pawn shops to clothing stores and restaurants. “We have 160 businesses between Eastern Avenue to County Street,” he said, adding, “It’s like a mall without a ceiling. You can find anything you want.”
The festively decorated stores also attract families to the area for a stroll along Pleasant Street, he said. “People take the bus to New York for this kind of experience and we have it right here,” he added.

A holiday themed shopping event is also an annual activity in Dartmouth’s Padanaram village, where the stores include gift shops, stationary, clothing, and home décor. The Padanaram Business Association’s Holiday Stroll, slated for Friday, Dec. 7, is another illuminated evening of extended shopping that also features ice sculptures, free hot chocolate, local Scouts selling kale soup, and vintage fire truck rides. “It’s a great night to meet new people. It’s not about selling, it’s about meeting people in the community,” said Ruthie Barry, manager of Flora Style clothing store. “It’s one of those nights where people start making their shopping list.”

Tiverton Four Corners shops will also be staying open late on Dec. 12 and 13 to celebrate the season with refreshments, special discounts and a night of stress-free local shopping, all after dark. More than 20 unique and boutiques make up this sales tax-free arts district where you will find everything from sparkling jewelry and knitting supplies to home décor and fine art.

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