The sign outside two downtown Delaware businesses last week promised a serene shopping experience inside compared with the "chaos" that awaited shoppers at a local big-box store.

The sign outside two downtown Delaware businesses last week promised a serene shopping experience inside compared with the "chaos" that awaited shoppers at a local big-box store.

Up and down Sandusky Street and the streets that feed into it, shop owners were preparing for the holiday shoppers they hope will cross their thresholds in the coming weeks looking for unique gifts for the hard and not-so-hard to please people on their holiday gift lists.

"Most of us have worked very hard not to compete head-to-head with the chains and the box stores because they out-market us and have better buying power than us," said Linda Shearer, owner of (Not on the) Corner Framing & Gallery at 27 N. Sandusky St. "So we get things that are unique and one-of-a-kind."

"If you walk the streets you'll see some new stores, and stores that have been here for a while, with a unique set of products," said Sherri Mitchell, owner of Pet Stuff at 81 N. Sandusky St. "We can all go to the big-box stores and find stuff. But you can find stuff down here, something that is different, many times at a better price because our overhead is so low."

"Every store has a variety of items ... things you won't find anyplace else," said Susie Crum, owner of B. Cause Boutique at 29 N. Sandusky St.

Some stores are destinations in themselves, such as Sandusky Street Antiques at 30 N. Sandusky St. and Captain Betty's vintage clothing store at 4 N. Sandusky St.

The antique store has clients who find them through advertising from such locales as Alaska and London, said manager Janet Sinks.

Betty Greene, also know as Captain Betty, has clients who travel from New York, Hollywood and China to buy her clothing.

"I wish the Delaware girls would come in, too," she said.

There are several other reasons to shop downtown, said Kathleen Zuccoli, owner of Rosie Spumoni's clothing and gift store at 51 N. Sandusky St. Among them are customer service, a calmer shopping experience and a way to support the local economy.

"We give better service. There are no 20-minute waits, no fighting huge crowds. We actually have time to help our customers," she said.

"When my customers come in they know me and I know them," said Tami Furlong, owner of Fundamentals Parent Teacher Bookstore at 25 W. Winter St. for 21 years.

"I know what they've already purchased, what their children like to read," she said.

That level of service runs true throughout the downtown, Furlong added. "The store owners know their (repeat) customers ... We are willing to take the extra step."

While every shop owner would love to see a steady stream of customers come through the doors, those who do walk with a slower step and take time to gaze into store windows before venturing inside, said Mel Corroto, owner of Beehive Books at 25 N. Sandusky St.

"I see a lot of people who just want to do downtown Delaware so they'll have lunch and stroll up and down the street," she said. "Last year, I found people wanted to get away from the craziness of the mall, come down here for a more relaxed and sane experience."

Betty Schultz, owner of Mantras gifts and accessories at 51 N. Sandusky St. was the one who put the sign outside her business advertising "serenity" inside, not "chaos."

"It's just another way to remind people why they should shop locally," she said.

Shopping downtown is also a social opportunity, Shearer said, even if you don't have much money.

"Part of Christmas is the good feeling you get when you come downtown and people know who you are," she said. "You see people you know and the things that are in here (the stores) are made by people who you know, so that when you give somebody a gift it has a little bit of meaning, not some plastic from China."

But it's special for visitors too, she said.

"It's happy and cheerful and beautiful. Our little downtown looks like one of those little Christmas villages on your coffee table."

"In this economy, people can really decide where to put their dollars," Mitchell said. "By putting their dollars locally, they help people in their community, people they know ... and when you make that conscientious decision to spend locally, it really helps build the community and keep downtown alive."

"Most of us do this not because there is a whole lot of money in it, but because it gives you a good feeling to be a small merchant," Shearer said. "It gives (shoppers) a feeling that they contribute to the well-being of their downtown, a sense of place and home, and they look for that in the holidays ... and it gives us a sense of place and home, too. We get as much out of it as our customers do."

Many of the stores and restaurants in the downtown have extended hours past 6 p.m. for the holidays.

Most will be open next Friday, Dec. 4, for Main Street Delaware's First Friday that will kick off at 5 p.m. when the Delaware Area Chamber of Commerce holds its Business After Hours at the Ohio Wesleyan University Ross Art Museum.

Local businesses will stay open for holiday shoppers with special entertainment in addition to shopping, said Frances Hamilton executive director Main Street Delaware. The Delaware Hayes Jazz Band will be in front of the Nova restaurant, while Hoggy's Restaurant will have live reindeer on display and the outdoor fireplace will be roaring to ward off the cold night air, she said.

The Delaware Community Chorus will be out caroling, as will some Girl Scout troops.

At several local churches, members of the congregations will gather and then march to the city tree at William and Sandusky streets carrying lighted candles. The public is encouraged to bring candles to hold while singing carols before the Masons light the tree at 7:30 p.m.

Horse-drawn wagon rides will take people through downtown streets, with a stop at Andrews House, 39 W. Winter St., for hot chocolate.

With some galleries scheduling exhibit openings for that night, combined with the businesses that spill out onto the sidewalks, "This will be a true community affair," Hamilton said.