Think small: Shoppers recognize local businesses

·5 min read

Nov. 27—The 12th annual Small Business Saturday is upon us thanks to American Express, which created the national promotional campaign to encourage shoppers to "shop small" during the busy holiday season.

The Brownsville Herald caught up with two of the many small business owners who serve as important links in the chain of a thriving local economy.

The first is Scott Wolfe, who opened La Maquila Gift Emporium in Brownsville's North Park Plaza in 2017 and moved into a larger, more visible space in the same mall in December 2020.

Despite the raging pandemic, which forced him to shift to online-only sales for a time, it was a good move, coming as it did right before the holiday rush.

"There were definitely periods where it was touch and go, but I knew going into December it was shopping as usual," Wolfe said. "I knew the customers would come."

They did, and the shop has continued to enjoy robust business, he said.

"This whole year has surpassed my expectations, so going into this holiday I've tried to stock as much as I can, because I know it's going to blow last year's sales out of the water," Wolfe said.

La Maquila features unusual gift items from Brownsville, from Texas and from elsewhere in the United States, and of course from Mexico. Most of his products, which he said he spends a considerable amount of time searching for and curating, are made by small businesses. Wolfe also tries to source as many handmade products as he can.

"Product ranges from candles, leather goods, shaving stuff, barware — I try to his a lot of different categories for gifts," Wolfe said. "This store is selling product, but it's also selling sort of a unique buying experience when you're walking through."

The shop has a major Brownsville pride/souvenir component, including "956" T-shirts, and bottles and place mats featuring a map of Brownsville. It's popular among locals though he also ships quite a lot of merchandise to out-of-state transplants. Wolfe thinks it's that niche that he's carved out for himself that's helped make the shop so successful.

La Maquila gift wraps every item it sells and does in-city delivery, a holdover from the days when the shop was closed due to COVID, but has suspended online sales for now due to the sheer size of the inventory and number of new items coming in since Wolfe expanded, he said.

Among the advantages of patronizing small, local businesses such as his as opposed to, say, gigantic online retailers, is that you can hold the item in your hands, feel it, smell it and generally size it up, Wolfe said. Also, the gift hunting has been done for the customer already, rather than having to spend hours online looking for just the right item, he said. Supporting the local economy is another advantage, plus many people just prefer the physical experience of browsing a brick-and-mortar shop, Wolfe said.

"That was the weird thing about having the store and the website," he said. "Sure, some people bought things on line, but people still wanted to come in the store and see the product themselves and touch it."

La Maquila's expanded holiday hours will be posted on the store's Facebook and Instagram pages. Normally closed Sundays, La Maquila will be open seven days a week in the run-up to Christmas take advantage of the extra customer traffic, Wolfe said.

Cindy Nelson has been with Roberts Jewelry in downtown Harlingen for 35 years, and inherited the third-generation business from her late husband, Brett, who was the grandson of Roy Bertram Roberts, who founded the company in 1922. The store was originally located on North 1st Street, then for a while in the historic Pioneer's Building, which burned in 2004, but has been at its current location, 216 E. Jackson St, since at least the 1960s, Nelson said.

"It's always been part of Harlingen downtown for sure," she said.

The Texas Historical Commission in 2007 bestowed its Texas Treasure Business Award on Roberts Jewelry, the first jewelry store in the state to receive the distinction. The company sells jewelry and diamond engagement rings, and offers in-house jewelry repair and custom remounting, in-house watch and clock repair, appraisals and other services.

Nelson said the store has a loyal following in the community after three generations of the same families shopping there, and also owes its longevity to the quality of customer service.

"I think the fact that we have our in-house jewelers, that we provide all those services, that we have the quality as far as the jewelry is concerned, and then of course the service that's kept us here this long," she said. "That goes a long way."

The holiday shopping season accounts for the store's largest percentage of sales each year, though Valentine's Day, Mothers Day and anniversaries also are very important, Nelson said. As for reasons to "shop small," customer service and the physical, brick-and-mortar shopping experience are high on the list, she said.

"You're going to be able to look at the items in person, see what you like, see the quality, know what you're getting for your price," Nelson said. "And you can bargain. ... I think for me, going to a small business, is that you're going to shop quality and you're going to get that customer service. And you're going to know that you bought it from somebody's that local. It makes a huge difference."

Normally closed on weekends, the store will be open limited hours on Saturday in December to keep up with demand, she said.

"It's usually 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.," Nelson said. "It just depends on how busy I get."

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IF YOU GO:

— La Maquila

North Park Plaza

800 N. Expressway 77/83 Ste. 28, Brownsville

(956) 621-2900

— Roberts Jewelry

216 E. Jackson St., Harlingen

(956) 423-4406

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