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Shoppers return in-person for holidays

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NEW YORK (AP) — On a recent evening in early November, shoppers at the Bryant Park holiday market in New York City were in the holiday spirit well before Black Friday. The scent of pine wafted from candle sellers’ booths, people snapped up gingerbread cookies and hot apple cider and ice skaters swirled figure eights around the rink in the center of the market.

After two years of pandemic holidays when people spent more dollars online, shoppers are back in force in stores and at holiday markets. Small businesses say it is beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, both emotionally and financially.

“It’s definitely been busier than last year,” said Sallie Austin Gonzales, CEO of soap company SallyeAnder based in Beacon, New York. This is her second year at the Bryant Park market – officially called the Holiday Shops by Urbanspace at Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park.

“People are taking advantage of being a part of society again and walking around.”

Christmas markets have been popular in Germany and Austria, where they’re called Christkindlmarkets, and other parts of Europe for centuries. They’ve become more popular in the U.S. over the past few decades, springing up in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, and many other cities. In New York, the Grand Central holiday market and the Union Square holiday market started in 1993.

Urbanspace now operates three holiday markets in New York: Bryant Park, Union Square and Columbus Circle. The pandemic put a damper on festivities in 2020, when only a scaled-back Bryant Park opened. Last year, Bryant Park was open at full capacity, but Union Square was at 80% capacity and Columbus Circle at 50%. This year, not only are all three markets at full capacity, Urbanspace is adding another one in Brooklyn that opens Nov. 28. Vendors apply for pop-up spaces and pay weekly or monthly rent to Urbanspace.

“We’ve received more applications than ever before, that tells us vendors are excited to be back in the pop-up game,” said Evan Shelton, Director of Pop-Up Markets at Urbanspace. “I’m very optimistic.”

So far, foot traffic is up slightly from last year as tourism continues to improve, Shelton said. While the number of tourists remains below 2019 levels, the tourism trade group NYC & Company expects 56.4 million domestic and international visitors by the end of 2022, up 30% from a year ago. That bodes well for small businesses as the holiday shopping season can account for 20% of annual sales.

For Austin Gonzales, the CEO of SallyeAnder in Beacon, New York, the Bryant Park market is a way to meet new customers and see what resonates with them. So far this year, her lemongrass and charcoal detoxifying soap and a tub of natural insect repellent are popular items. Like most businesses, she’s facing higher costs for everything from olive oil to paper bags. She’s raised the price of her soaps from $8 to $9.25.

“Holiday shops do a great job for us,” she said. “We see thousands and thousands of customers, and get tons of new advice, ideas, suggestions and testimonials.”

For some small businesses, the markets are a welcome respite after a punishing couple of years. Elizabeth Ryan, who owns and operates Breezy Hill Orchard in Staatsburg, New York, said the initial onset of COVID-19 caused her revenue to plunge 80% in 2020.

Ryan is a founding member of the Union Square Greenmarket and a longtime staple at the Manhattan holiday markets, where she sells cider, cider doughnuts and gingerbread cookies. She said her orchard has mainly recovered, with the help of a good apple crop this year. But holiday markets give her a much-needed revenue boost.

“We love working for the holiday markets, it has helped us a lot to get through various and sundry problems,” she said.

Preparing for holiday markets is labor intensive, because many small businesses have to schlep their goods from miles away and spend long hours staffing their booths. Ryan’s farm is 100 miles north of the city and Ryan drives in almost every day. But being at the market and watching New York City recover from the pandemic are worth the hassle.

“Reopening of the shops and the return of Christmas last year was very exuberant and joyful. I hope this year is the same,” she said.

While holiday market-goers might be feeling the pinch of 40-year high inflation rates, Lisa Devo, owner of Soap & Paper Factory, a Nyack, N.Y.-based maker of candles and other scented products, said shoppers are still looking for an affordable treat or gift. Devo, who has had a booth at Bryant Park for about seven years, has six or seven products under $25 and not many items over $50. She’s had to raise some prices, for example, candles that were $28 now retail for $32.

Shoppers return yearly for her “Roland Pine” line of products including candles and diffusers, which has a piney scent that wafts out of her booth. Devo calls the scent “the star of our company.”

“We are a feel-good thing for under $50 bucks,” she said. “People will spend $30 on a candle. It’s not like spending $10,000 on a couch or something. … I haven’t really seen much pushback.”

Most of Soap & Paper Factory’s revenue comes from wholesale orders, but selling items at markets for retail prices provides a boost. “We’re hoping for a great year — we compare our numbers every year and we’re off to a great start.”

She said the crowds seem more robust than last year, though it still doesn’t feel quite back to pre-pandemic levels of “normal.” She senses the fear of COVID-19 has subsided and is happy to see fewer masks.

“So yeah, I think it’s good. It feels like things are kind of like back on like track.”

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for the imminent handover of former President Donald Trump’s tax returns to a congressional committee after a three-year legal fight.

The court, without comment, rejected Trump’s plea for an order that would have prevented the Treasury Department from giving six years of tax returns for Trump and some of his businesses to the Democratic-controlled House Ways and Means Committee.

It was Trump’s second loss at the Supreme Court in as many months. In October, the court refused to step into the legal fight surrounding the FBI search of Trump’s Florida estate that turned up classified documents.

In the dispute over his tax returns, the Treasury Department had refused to provide the records during Trump’s presidency. But the Biden administration said federal law is clear that the committee has the right to examine any taxpayer’s return, including the president’s.

Lower courts agreed that the committee has broad authority to obtain tax returns and rejected Trump’s claims that it was overstepping and only wanted the documents so they could be made public.

Chief Justice John Roberts imposed a temporary freeze on Nov. 1 to allow the court to weigh the legal issues raised by Trump’s lawyers and the counter arguments of the administration and the House of Representatives.

Just over three weeks later, the court lifted Roberts’ order with no noted dissents.

The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The House contended an order preventing the IRS from providing the tax returns would leave lawmakers “little or no time to complete their legislative work during this Congress, which is quickly approaching its end.”

Had Trump persuaded the nation’s highest court to intervene, he could have run out the clock on the committee, with Republicans ready to take control of the House in January. They almost certainly would have dropped the records request if the issue had not been resolved by then.

The House Ways and Means panel and its chairman, Democrat Richard Neal of Massachusetts, first requested Trump’s tax returns in 2019 as part of an investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s audit program and tax law compliance by the former president. A federal law says the Internal Revenue Service “shall furnish” the returns of any taxpayer to a handful of top lawmakers.

The Justice Department under the Trump administration had defended a decision by then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to withhold the tax returns from Congress. Mnuchin argued that he could withhold the documents because he concluded they were being sought by Democrats for partisan reasons. A lawsuit ensued.

After President Joe Biden took office, the committee renewed the request, seeking Trump’s tax returns and additional information from 2015-2020. The White House took the position that the request was a valid one and that the Treasury Department had no choice but to comply. Trump then attempted to halt the handover in court.

Then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. obtained copies of Trump’s personal and business tax records as part of a criminal investigation. That case, too, went to the Supreme Court, which rejected Trump’s argument that he had broad immunity as president.

© Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

© 1998 – 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. | All Rights Reserved.

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