While big-box stores opened at midnight on Friday, small business owners around central Maine got their running start on the holiday season on Small Business Saturday.

Some mom and pop shops in Augusta, Hallowell, Gardiner and Waterville, among other towns, offered discounts for the occasion while local groups were running advertising campaigns and promotions with prizes to entice shoppers to downtown businesses. The mood was less frantic than the frenzy of Black Friday with shoppers ambling down sidewalks and popping from store to store.

Small Business Saturday was started by American Express in November 2010 in an attempt to stimulate small businesses and keep money within communities. In 2011, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution to support the day in every state.

In Hallowell, Berry and Berry Floral was one of the first businesses to open. Owner Aurilla Holt said at 9 a.m. the store had some orders to put together for customers, but expected to sell fewer flower arrangements and more handmade gifts from local artisans when the other shops opened at 10 a.m.

“Today, it will be more gift-type stuff (that people buy),” she said. “They want something more than big-box store item; something unique and handmade.”

Holt’s store had artisan candles, crafted coasters that looked like wood pallets and hand-painted ornaments for sale alongside poinsettias and other flowers.

The event was organized by the Hallowell Board of Trade, which billed it as a curtain-raiser for the recently reopened Water Street, which was under construction. Many downtown businesses offered a 15 percent discount on their goods.

“Since we have our brand new road and sidewalk and Water Street is open, we really want people to come shop at the businesses,” Board of Trade Treasurer Cary Colwell said.

Just down Water Street, the pop-up Holiday Pottery Shop was offering pottery, felted art and glasswares in the old Harlow Gallery location at 160 Water St. Nicole Benoit, of Hallowell, and her daughter Rita were shopping for handmade gifts for their friends and family.

“We usually try to shop local and support the local businesses, Nicole Benoit said. “Some people are so talented; especially the creative people of Hallowell.”

A few miles south on U.S. Route 201, Gardiner’s small businesses were enjoying a large push from their local trade group.

The Gardiner Main Street’s Program Coordinator Melinda Hahn set up home base at Sweet Carolynn’s ice cream shop to hand out gift guides, Small Business Saturday gear and a Bingo sheet to encourage shoppers to purchase certain products and visit businesses in downtown Gardiner to earn entries to a raffle.

“We did a big push on social media and published a gift guide,” Hahn said. “The good thing about downtown (Gardiner) is we have a lot of niche stores (and) things you can only find here.”

Britt Ely and Sandra Messer, of Gardiner, stopped in at Niche, a record store, to look at ukuleles. The duo didn’t have a plan for their day, other than to wander into shops and, perhaps, track down a gift or two.

“I don’t usually like to (go) out looking for something specific,” Ely said. “It makes it too easy.”

Ely said the ongoing effort of businesses and trade groups in Gardiner has made the city and surrounding area more welcoming for residents and visitors.

“We like the ambiance of Gardiner,” he said. “This area is getting prettier and prettier.”

Peter Johnson, co-owner of 1 Brunswick Trading antique and cigar shop, said the Gardiner Main Street brought support and enthusiasm to Gardiner’s downtown.

“We (have) started to see more foot traffic from away,” Johnson said, citing that people from the Lakes Region and Buffalo, New York, have come in recently. “People are discovering that (Gardiner) is a place to come.”

In Waterville, Brett White, of Waterville, and Alex Gray, of Auburn, were browsing the Common Street Arts Holiday Bazaar, which includes crafts and handmade items from more than 20 Maine artists and is being held at the Hathaway Creative Center this year.

White, 46, said she makes a point of coming to the bazaar every year.

“I like that there are local craftspeople and being able to support local craftspeople,” Gray said.

The bazaar is offering a range of gifts from the traditional — things like pottery, ceramics and wooden cutting boards and rolling pins — to the quirky, like a make-your-own felt hedgehog kit.

“I don’t go out to the box stores very much,” said another shopper, Sam Sanborn, of Canaan. “Once in a while I do. When you shop local, a lot of times you know who did it. That’s one reason. And because (your money) stays in the community.”

Both Gardiner Main Street and GHM Insurance in Waterville partnered with the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce and American Express as a “neighborhood champion” to encourage people to shop locally on Small Business Saturday.

GHM Insurance set up a booth with free breakfast pastries, hot chocolate and candy canes on Main Street Saturday where shoppers could pick up a “passport” to be stamped by local businesses for the chance to win a $100 gift certificate.

Foot traffic at the booth was slow Saturday, said Martha Wentworth, an employee of GHM Insurance, but she said the company is hoping to grow enthusiasm.

“We plan to do it next year too,” Wentworth said. “Today hasn’t been as busy as we hoped so far, but we did get the word out and we’re trying to reach out to everybody.”

At Christopher Hastings Confections, one of 20 businesses participating in the passport program, co-owner Nate Towne said business was off to a good start after the shop opened a few hours earlier than usual.

“We’ve had a good flow for a Saturday morning, so that’s nice,” Towne said as he hung a final strand of Christmas lights in the window. Assistant Chocolatier Lauren Ouellette, meanwhile, was polishing chocolate molds shaped like Christmas tree ornaments next to two trays of chocolate covered marshmallows.

For the Christmas season, the store will offer peppermint bark, candied orange peels and new truffle flavors like eggnog and white chocolate raspberry, in addition to the brightly colored truffles and chocolate bars they make year round.

“Holidays are our jam,” Ouellette said.

Staff Writer Rachel Ohm contributed to this report.

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

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