Russell’s co-owner Ashley Eisenbeisz and her son, Fisher. Russell’s was purchased by Eisenbeisz’s grandparents in 1956, but the building has been a retail location for at least 100 years. Russell’s — like many Sitka businesses — feels both the downturn in the state economy and the increase in competition from online retail. But Eisenbeisz is optimistic nonetheless. Of Fisher, she says “Just raising another generation of Russell’s owner, possibly, if he wants to stay and do this.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

With the holiday shopping season in full swing, Sitka’s downtown retailers are seeing the usual uptick in sales for this time of year — but business could be better. Between the downturn in Alaska’s economy, and ever-increasing pressure from online sales, Sitka’s brick-and-mortar stores remain open — and hopeful.

Nugget, the corgi, barking, running after ball.

On Sitka’s main street exactly one week after Black Friday, things are pretty quiet. Nugget, the corgi, can chase a ball down the entire length of Russell’s, an outdoor store that’s been in this location for 100 years — maybe more.

“The furthest back that we can find right now is 1897,” said Ashley Eisenbeisz, who with her husband Steven acquired the store from her uncle, Ron McClain, seven years  ago. McClain’s parents — her grandparents — bought it in 1956.

“There’s been a few updates to the building, but the downstairs floor is turning 100,” said Eisenbeisz. “It’s all original hardwood floor, so we’re getting ready to have a fun little celebration.”

That celebration will be in 2020. Right now, it’s the heart of the holiday shopping season, and Eisenbeisz wishes it were just a little bit merrier.

“The Christmas season is a very big season for us, just to be able to stay open seven days a week, keep the lights on, keep our employees here. It can be a make-or-break season for us,” she said.

And so far, Russell’s is making it. So is Stereo North, just down the block.

Masters of adaptability, Shirley Robards and her son Cliff “Tuffy” Robards have morphed Stereo North from a music and electronics store into a Sitka hybrid, also selling furniture and appliances. Shirley Robards was happy with the store’s traffic over Black Friday and the tax-free holiday sales, but sales were down compared to past years — a fact she attributes to the growth of online competition. (KCAW photo/Ari Snider)

Shirley Robards, whose family owns Stereo North, says business has been good in recent years, citing a successful transition out of the CD market and into a diverse array of furniture, appliances, and more. She says this year’s no tax day and Black Friday brought in a good amount of customers. 

“No tax day, we did really well,” Robards said. “I was happy. Lot of people were spending their money, and that was good.” 

But, she says, it wasn’t as good as previous years, a downturn she attributes to the continued rise of online retail. 

“It was a little less, like I said, because I’m sure a lot of people are shopping, you know, on Amazon and I think that’s why we’re losing some of the stores downtown. I’m sorry to see that,” Robards said.

On the other side of Lincoln Street, Ashia Lane manages Old Harbor Books. She hasn’t had time to crunch the sales numbers yet to see how they compare to previous years, but says the store was busy on Black Friday, which also coincided with the Art Walk. 

“We had and Art Walk on Friday evening that I think had a record number of visitors in the store,” said Lane, “and it looked like sales went very well over the weekend.” 

Right next door to Old Harbor Books is a new boutique, “Galanin & Klein.” Co-owner Rachel Klein is at the sales counter this season. 

Rachel Klein (pictured) and her business partner Brit Galanin opened their downtown boutique just eight months ago, in April 2019. Like its more established counterparts, Galanin & Klein saw a holiday bump in sales after an autumn slump. The store was at its busiest during the Art Walk on the evening of Black Friday. (KCAW photo/Katherine Rose)

“It was a really good weekend for us,” said Klein. “I think the tax free helped, we had consistent sales on Friday and Saturday. And then, actually, the art walk was a huge boost on Friday.

She says that’s when their shop was its busiest. Shop small Saturday wasn’t as busy. Galanin & Klein opened in April, so she can’t compare sales from the previous year like other downtown businesses.

“I only have a few months to go on, but based on September after the cruise ship season and last month in  October, it was definitely a big boost in sales, so we’re happy about that,” Klein said.

Galanin & Klein is a study in contrasts to Russell’s: One, a brand new brick-and-mortar store opened by young, media-savvy owners; the other, a multi-generational business that has undergone many iterations en route to its current success, and is literally polishing its century-old floors.

Ashley Eisenbeisz, with Russell’s, says she understands that many Sitkans are feeling the pinch right now, but the city’s Black Friday sales tax holiday helps stores like hers stay in the game — and deliver, when mail order doesn’t.

“It’s super-hard to compete with any of the giant retailers doing massive, site-wide discounts,” Eisenbeisz said. “But I think just watching what’s going on in the economy, staying current on what’s happening with the different vendors and brands that you carry, and just trying to do the best that you can as far as discounts and showing people what you have available, and you don’t have to wait for it in the mail, or have it get lost in Anchorage somewhere and not get here by Christmas.”

Timeliness may prove to be the weak link for package deliveries this season. KCAW reached out to west coast United States Postal Service representative Brian Sperry, who responded in an email that the Sitka Post Office has seen a 70-75 percent increase in package volume this year alone. Pressed for details on how local post offices are adjusting to the increased load, Sperry declined to be interviewed. KCAW is preparing a formal request for additional information.

Nugget barks, drops ball.

Nugget, the Russell’s corgi, will deliver this ball as long as anyone’s got the energy to throw it. I stop just long enough to raise my camera and take a picture of Ashley Eisenbeisz and her three-and-a-half month old son Fisher. Dad Steven is behind the counter.

“Just raising another generation of Russell’s owner, possibly, if he wants to stay and do this,” she said.

KCAW’s Katherine Rose and Ari Snider contributed to this story.