WATERVILLE — Merchants on Main Street said this weekend they are still recovering from the worst global recession since World War II, but most say they experienced gains in sales and traffic over the holiday season.

The increases indicate improvement in the local economy and a brightening future for local businesses.

“We had a nice season this year,” said Mark Larsen, owner of Larsen’s Jewelers. “It was busy right through Christmas.”

The Christmas shopping season is the busiest time of year for the jewelry store that has operated on Main Street since 1991. Larsen’s father founded the business in 1962.

Larsen attributed the increase, in part, to reduced heating oil and gasoline prices brought on by OPEC’s decision to pump more oil in the face of increasing global competition.

“When you wanted to fill up before, it was $50,” he said. “Now it’s $25, so that savings adds up.”

Compared to the previous few years, Larsen said shopping traffic appeared to be up on Main Street overall.

“We could tell people felt the pinch of those years,” he said.

At the Loyal Biscuit Co., which opened on Main Street in August, owner Heidi Neal said she had no basis for comparison to determine whether holiday sales were up or down.

However, at the company’s stores in Camden, Rockland and Belfast, sales were definitely up this holiday season compared to recent holiday seasons, she said.

Additionally, the four stores’ annual fundraiser that seeks donations to buy dog and cat food for animal shelters in each store’s community was up significantly, raising $6,600, enough to buy 7,500 pounds of pet food.

“The generosity this year is definitely better,” she said, attributing the increase to an improved economy in general.

But not every merchant reported an overall improvement sales.

At Happy Trails/Joe’s Smoke Shop, manager Zack Gurney said sales were slower than last year in the weeks leading up to Christmas — though they appeared to improve somewhat in the days immediately before and after Christmas.

“Once they got their clothing and other stuff, people started coming in here and having fun,” he said.

The tobacco paraphernalia, art work, apparel and other items marketed by the store is somewhat recession proof, according to Gurney. In down economic times, customers tend to spend less, but they still frequent the store, he said.

Additionally, the store’s busiest time of year is the summer, not Christmas.

As a result of reduced heating and gasoline prices, Gurney said, he anticipates sales will continue improving in the coming months.

Similarly, Ellen Richmond, owner of Children’s Book Cellar, said sales were within $300 of last year’s holiday season.

Those sales are definitely not what the store generated 10 years ago, Richmond said, concluding the lingering effects of the recession are not yet over.

“It was a solid season, but it wasn’t earth shattering,” she said.

Overall, Richmond said, the holiday season accounts for a quarter to a third of the store’s annual sales.

She said she is hopeful the sales will carry the store through the slower months of January, February and March.

Faced with increased competition from the online e-reader market, Richmond said her customers frequent the store because of the personal experience and ability to browse.

Often, she said holiday shoppers come with lists of ages and interests those their shopping for in order to get book recommendations.

“You can’t do that online. It just doesn’t work,” she said.

Evan Belanger — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @evanbelanger

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