December 21. 2012 10:38PM

Local shops offer alternatives for last-minute shoppers

Union Leader Correspondent

At Tea Stains in New Boston, owner Beth Stevens sprinkles a little potpourri and carefully wraps each item that leaves her gift shop. (Nancy Bean Foster)

Last minute treats are carefully wrapped at Sweet Expressions in Hillsborough. (Nancy Bean Foster/Union Leader Correspondent)

HILLSBOROUGH - Last-minute Christmas shopping can test the resolve of even the most seasoned shopper, and small business owners say their shops and boutiques offer the perfect alternative to crowded malls and chaotic big box stores.

Jill Knight, owner of Sweet Expressions, a candy and gift shop in Hillsborough, said shoppers trying to grab last minute gifts can slow down, relax and stop jockeying for parking spots if they just come to shops like hers.

"We try to have something in the store for everyone," she said, "and we have our own parking lot so you don't have to fight over spaces."

At Moonlight and Roses in Derry, employee Cathy Spencer said easy parking is a big draw for customers, but so is the atmosphere.

"It's very peaceful here," she said. "People just come for the atmosphere."

Moonlight and Roses features everything from vintage items and antiques to handmade candles and jewelry, and the shop is set up in such a way that people feel their exploring instead of shopping.

"We have very unique types of gifts here that you just can't buy at Walmart," said Spencer.

At Tea Stains, a boutique in the barn at Beth Stevens' New Boston Home, people come for the soothing music, the elaborate displays, and the escape the store provides from the hustle and bustle of the holidays.

"We're a good alternative to the mall," she said. "We offer gift items, scarves, accessories, jewelry, even plants and flowers, and we have a mix of old and new so people can really create a special gift."

Stevens said men like to come to the shop because of the architecture of the barn and the antiques that have been incorporated into everything from lighting fixtures to displays, and the women just love the chance to buy things that are truly original.

Stevens said she tries to have things that are a little funky and off-beat and work well as gifts for people who are a bit difficult to shop for or seem to have everything. Feather and fur cuffs and hats are a hot item this year, as are handcrafted scarves and New England-made products that are tough to find in chain stores.

"The men are always in a panic this time of year," said Spencer. "We're always glad to help them."

Last-minute shoppers tend to be men, agreed Kathleen McDonald of Apple Blossom Collectibles in Londonderry, and heading to a small boutique or store can be just what a man needs most in his time of crisis.

"For those husbands who wait until the last minute, we can help them find the perfect gift," McDonald said, including jewelry, collectibles, even furniture.

"I like to ask men questions to get a sense of who they're shopping for and what she likes," said Stevens. "A lot of men just don't know what to buy for their wives or mothers, so it's nice to be able to give them a woman's perspective."

Stevens likes to send customers away feeling like they've just bought a gift, even if it's for themselves.

"I like to package things up nicely, adding ribbon and a little potpourri to each gift," she said. "I want things to be unexpected, to be a surprise."

For Knight, the last minute rush is all about finding perfect stocking stuffers like candy, stuffed animals, even Santa lip balm, or for the older crowd, gourmet tea and coffee, or earrings and bracelets.

"A lot of our businesses from now until Christmas will be people coming in to grab those last minute details," she said. "People just want that little extra something to make everything perfect."

This will be Sharon Voorhees' last Christmas as owner of Generations Florist and Gifts in Hillsborough, which will close at the end of the month because people have taken to ordering flowers and gifts on the Internet instead of visiting local businesses, she said.

"When you don't shop locally, businesses like us close," she said.

Voorhees, whose parents were florists as well, said that 11 years of business in Hillsborough has to come to an end because there's just not enough traffic to keep things going.

"My entire life is wrapped up in this place, so it's incredibly painful to let it go," she said. "My customers have been really supportive and they're all upset, but unfortunately, it's just not enough."

But Voorhees is optimistic about the future.

"I'm going to relax and let God's plan unfold," she said. "And I'm going to spend some time with my two little grandbabies."