Gary Ferguson

Over 120 unique, independent stores and restaurants line the soon-to-be-rebuilt Ithaca Commons pedestrian mall and surrounding streets, making downtown Ithaca the most diverse and distinctive shopping and dining district in the region. 

Downtowns like ours are an increasingly rare sight. With the tremendous growth of online and “big box” commerce in recent decades, many Main Streets across America have struggled to retain a broad selection of shopping and dining opportunities and many others have disappeared altogether. But why do we care about supporting and developing our downtown-shopping district. Why should we bother to buy local?

The most oft-cited reason for choosing to shop local is that when you shop with local merchants, more of your money is recycled back into the local economy. Forbes estimates that for every dollar spent at an independent store, 68 cents stays in the community, versus 43 cents at a local branch of a national chain and, of course, nothing at all at an online retailer. 

When money is spent close to home, it creates a multiplier effect: local businesses tend to invest with local banks and do business with other local businesses rather than funneling revenues to remote financial conglomerates and corporate headquarters. The taxes that those local merchants pay go to support the roads, utilities, parks, libraries, and other public amenities we all use and enjoy each day.

Sustaining a healthy local economy isn’t the only reason to shop local and it shouldn’t be our only rallying cry when it comes to promoting our downtown businesses: our one-of-a-kind stores and restaurants are compelling on their own merits. Local businesses can offer a memorable, personalized shopping experience that you can’t get online or at a big box outlet. 

A vibrant community of local merchants can also deliver a more extensive and distinctive product selection, explained Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance: “A multitude of small businesses, each selecting products based not on a national sales plan but on their own interests and the needs of their local customers, guarantees a much broader range of product choices.”

•     •     •

Our downtown-shopping district is also incredibly dynamic, with new one-of-a-kind retail stores, restaurants, and personal care services opening up each and every month. 

Case in point: the 100 block of South Cayuga Street, bordering the west side of The Commons, has undergone a veritable renaissance in just a few short months. Broken public amenities are slowly but surely being repaired, and the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) is currently organizing its annual Art in the Heart exhibition that will bring a multifarious selection of new sculptures and murals alongside the permanent installations on the Cayuga Street Art Corridor. But South Cayuga street has been most noticeably revitalized by an array of new and relocated businesses that have opened their doors this year:

Sunny Days at #123 specializes in crafts and gifts from New York State artisans, including photography, local music, postcards, maple syrup, and custom gift baskets. Proprietor Deirdre Kurzweil envisions the store as a welcoming environment with staff that will function as unofficial tour guides to the area. “We hope to make visitors think,” said Kurzweil, “I can’t wait to get started!”

Avanti at #115 and Evolution at #121 offer a wide selection of affordable alternative clothing and accessories. From Evolution’s funky streetwear, fashion wigs, and feather boas to Avanti’s cocktail dresses, dressy shoes, and elegant jewelry, Katie Spallone’s sister stores have been local fixtures for a number of years and Katie is now “very happy to a part of the South Cayuga Street scene.”

Wine and Design at #124, according to proprietor Kylene Kiah, has a simple concept: “Sign up for a class, show up, bring your favorite snack or beverage, and paint. No experience or art skills are necessary; we have instructors that teach step-by-step and every participant takes home a one-of-a-kind canvas painting  made in less than two hours.”

Amazima at #123, Suite 302 is a new boutique art gallery and studio space owned by husband-and-wife team Samite and Sandra Mulonodo featuring Samite’s photography from Africa and his elegant hand-carved bowls and platters. “‘Amazima’ means ‘truth,’” explained Sandra, “and this work expresses truth in the beauty of the natural world and the honesty of people’s connections to it.”

Kristopher Buchan, New York State Licensed Principal Broker Tompkins, runs Cortland Real Estate at #105. “Your listing will shine in our multimedia window display with wonderful street visibility,” said Buchan. “We can also help you as a buyer’s agent making your next real estate transaction smooth and painless, whether it is your first or most recent of many. Come see us!”

Mystic Water Kava Bar at #109 has reopened. Mystic Water’s specialty is the kava beverage, a traditional non-alcoholic elixir from the South Pacific made from the ground root of the kava plant. “Kava has been consumed for centuries,” said proprietor Avigdor Weber, “and is known for its natural stress-relieving properties.”

Lot 10 Lounge at #106 is partnering with Northstar House to serve up fast, casual, quality food with a focus on innovative plates that feature fresh, local ingredients. “While Lot 10 has become increasingly known for its nightlife,” said Lot 10 proprietor Matt Riis, “a staunch focus on specialty food remains at the heart of our offerings.”

•     •     •

This is quite an impressive roster for one single downtown block, let alone one that has for many years been considered neglected and underserved. “I love to shop in locally-owned businesses where I know the owner and employees,” said Kris Lewis, a veteran downtown apparel merchant and Director of Retail at the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. “Interacting with a friendly, knowledgeable proprietor who can explain the inspiration behind the figuration on a hand-carved bowl or fit me with just the right party dress or teach me to paint a Parisian street scene while I enjoy a nice French chardonnay. You just can’t do that on your iPhone or at BJ’s Wholesale Club. Simply put: if you haven’t been gone shopping downtown in a while, you’re missing out.” •

(1) comment

Franklins Ghost

Nothing new here, but you wont get any more patronage to your current roster of artsy crafty type stores than you did in the previous 20 years worth of similar stores. The libs who dominate local politics want Ithaca to be "walkable" but then support the opening of mostly artsy crafty stores in the center of town, stores whose focus is the passing tourist who might be willing to buy an over-priced trinket, and not the area resident in need of reasonably priced goods.
When I was a kid and young adult the current Commons area was home to useful stores like Rothschilds, Montgomery Wards, Harolds, the Ithaca Hotel, etc. Now it mainly boasts of a collection of head shops and tourist traps. You take your life in your hands walking around with all the riff raff that have tended to hang out on the Commons for years, and who do the Commons shopkeepers call 911 about? The guy on the bench who lit a cigarette outside their store. Pitiful.

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