If you build it, they won’t necessarily come.
So for Sarah Nichter and her fellow business owners on Hertel Avenue, the challenge of getting potential customers’ feet on the sidewalk is a constant one. Even as the Hertel shopping and restaurant district has solidified as a hub of urban activity, a little creativity keeps the interest high and the energy flowing.
That creative flair is Nichter’s specialty. She and her mother, Patty Santoro, have owned P.S. Accessories at 1442 Hertel for eight years. And Nichter has been the idea person behind a bunch of special events that make the whole enterprise more fun than it has any right to be.
Next up is the kickoff to the holiday season: Not Black Friday, with its trampling hordes of big-box shoppers, but Small Business Saturday on November 28th. It’s a national promotion with a hometown feeling, topped off on Hertel with the arrival of a pair of visitors accessorized in red. “We have a great Santa and Mrs. Claus,” Nichter says. “They cost a pretty penny, but they’re really authentic.” From 5 to 7 p.m. that day, kids can have their pictures taken – free! – with the royal couple.
Small Business Saturday was developed by American Express to encourage shoppers to support small, locally owned stores – good for the retailers, but even better for the city’s economic health. According to the American Independent Business Alliance, multiple studies show that locally owned independent retailers return over three times as much money per dollar of sales to the local economy than chain stores do.
And, of course, you can’t sit on Santa’s lap online.
Nichter is spearheading the effort on Hertel, as she has with several other events to build foot traffic. She’s 38, a Kenmore West graduate who managed a law office as a paralegal for 10 years before making the leap to shop owner. Her mom is the business-savvy one, Nichter the creative director. “I love dealing with people, clothing and fashion,” she says. “It gives me the freedom to use my creativity and my passion, and I get to deal with so many great people.”
She and her husband, Mark, live in Amherst. Their kids – Lily, 6, and 4-year-old Sam – hang around the shop sometimes and play with friends in the city neighborhood. And it’s families with kids who have often responded to the ideas that Nichter and her colleagues have put out there.
Especially, this year, Halloween on Hertel, which drew maybe a thousand people – costumed-up kids with their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles – to the avenue to trick-or-treat at participating establishments. “We were looking out and seeing just a sea of people,” Nichter says. This was the third year for the event, and it tripled in size from last year’s. A professional photographer took kids’ pictures for free, in return for their parents’ email addresses. “If you haven’t walked Hertel, you don’t know what’s here,” Nichter says. “This gave people an opportunity to look at the stores and see what’s there.” Maybe they didn’t buy anything, but maybe they’ll be back. Lily, by the way, was a cat, as were her mom and grandmother. Sam was a Ninja Turtle.
The summer-long Shop, Rock & Stroll series also has grown over eight years, expanding to two blocks and held the last Friday of the month from May to September. Live bands play; some stores put out food and wine; a face painter does her thing; and now an event planner brings in oversize lawn games like cornhole and Connect Four.
Then there’s Chalk the Block – more lawn games, more face painting, but also buckets of chalk with which artists of all ages can liven up the cement. Some of the drawings outside the North Park Theater have been world-class.
It’s all stirred up by the Hertel Avenue page on Facebook, which has over 12,000 followers and not only plugs special events but aggregates the news from the avenue.
Other organizations are energized by Nichter’s efforts. Joann Steinmetz, president of The North Buffalo Organization says, “Sarah is instrumental in making Hertel a destination for both local folks and tourists. She is North Buffalo’s ‘social media butterfly’ and everything she does is a success in terms of bringing foot traffic to Hertel for a great event.”
Nichter says she has seen a generational shift in the neighborhood, as young people who rented apartments nearby have returned to buy homes and raise their families in North Buffalo. As for the special events on Hertel, she says, “It’s not just me. I can come up with these ideas, but unless everyone’s on board nothing will come of it. All these businesses stay late and open their doors. But more people is better than just one, and if you can all feed off each other and grow together, you’re not alone on the ship.”