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Longview retailers optimistic about shopping season
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Laura Nevils can only approach the holiday shopping season with one attitude: optimism.

Nevils, one of the owners of Books & Barrels in downtown Longview, said her business, which opened about a year ago, at one height of the pandemic, said it seems as though more people are focusing on shopping local this year.

“We’ve only known COVID as a business. I’ve got to be optimistic,” she said, recalling an opening that was delayed in March 2020 by the arrival of COVID-19. A sign outside her store on Center Street encourages shoppers to “put your $$” where their hearts are and “shop local.”

“I’m sure people have always done that, but it just feels like more people are trying to keep it local,” Nevils said. “We’ve having a lot more customers coming in, and we see a lot of people tagging us in posts about shopping local and keeping it small.”

She’s facing some of the same hurdles other businesses are dealing with as the effects of COVID-19 on businesses continue — she worries some inventory might not arrive on time.

Nevils said Books & Barrels isn’t open on Thanksgiving Day or for Black Friday, noting that people will likely be shopping at big box stores such as Walmart and Target for Black Friday specials. Books & Barrels will reopen Saturday.

The Christmas shopping season is expected to draw more shoppers this year than in 2020, with almost 2 million more people expected to shop between Thanksgiving Day and Cyber Monday, according to the National Retail Federation.

“We’re expecting another record-breaking holiday season this year, and Thanksgiving weekend will play a major role as it always has,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement. “Nonetheless, consumers are starting earlier than ever to be sure they can get what they want, when they want it, at a price they want to pay. Black Friday stopped being a one-day event years ago, and this year some consumers started shopping for Christmas as early as Halloween. NRF is encouraging consumers to shop safe and shop early, but retailers are confident they have enough inventory on hand to meet holiday demand.”

The retail federation surveyed shoppers in November and found 66%, or 158.3 million, plan to shop this weekend. That is up from 156.6 million in 2020 but below 2019, pre-COVID numbers of 165.3 million.

“Among those shopping on Thanksgiving Day, 65 percent are likely to do so in stores, up from 50 percent last year, when worries about COVID-19 were still keeping many people at home. On Black Friday, 64 percent are likely to shop in stores, up from 51 percent last year,” the National Retail Federation reported. “For those shopping during the weekend, deals that are ‘too good to pass up’ remain the top reason, cited by 58 percent, but tradition continued to come in second at 28 percent. While Thanksgiving weekend will be busy, 61 percent of those surveyed had already begun their holiday shopping, about the same as last year’s 59 percent but up from 51 percent a decade ago in 2011.”

Shoppers are expected to spend an average of $997.73 this year, with the National Retail Federation predicting November and December sales will increase 8.5% to 10.5% from 2020, from about $843.4 billion to $859 billion. The retail federation says that’s a record in terms of growth rate and amount spent.

At River Belles and River Outfitters on Judson Road in Longview, Austin Barber said he and his wife, Chelsea, have noticed a definite change in shopping this year compared with a year ago. Sales have increased, he said, along with foot traffic.

“It’s definitely a better year,” he said.

The store has plenty of inventory, he said, expressing hope that sales continue to grow through the end of the year and the spring.

“We need to rebound from 2020,” he said.

His store will be open Friday, but River Belles and River Outfitters celebrated a “Black Tuesday” instead of Black Friday with a Sip and Shop on Tuesday that featured 20% off sales.

“Black Friday people are getting out to buy toys. I just feel like clothing retail is overlooked on Black Friday. We do it the Tuesday before Black Friday, and it works out well for us,” he said.

Longview Mall and its tenants will be closed for Thanksgiving, with the shopping center opening from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday. JC Penny is opening at 5 a.m., however, and Conn’s has extended hours of 7 a.m. Friday to midnight Saturday.

“Trends indicate shoppers are looking forward to in-person retail experiences and events this holiday season,” Longview Mall General Manager Kelly Overby said. Santa’s arrival this year at the mall is set 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, and the mall is hosting its first Christmas tree lighting from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4 at the main entrance.

The mall also has welcomed two new stores in time for the holidays — EntertainMART near JC Penney and Red Barn Farms near Center Court.

“We kind of try to take the spot of Hastings,” said EntertainMart Assistant Manager Garrett Hopkins, referring to a now closed chain of stores that featured, among other things, new and used books, CDs, Blu-rays and DVDs as well as collectible items.

EntertainMart will open will open for door buster sales from 6 a.m. to noon on Friday, with Hopkins saying that store has already been received well in the several weeks it’s been open.

Overby said the mall has already been busy, a sentiment echoed by Red Barn Farms owners Brad Juneau. The gift store features signature foods and candles, as well as gift items such as hand-sewn stuffed animals and gifts. The store has locations in other states, as well, and Juneau said the retail environment is “night and day” compared to malls in Shreveport, for instance, and other locations.

“Traffic at the mall is stronger than other malls we’ve been in,” Juneau said, adding that sales are increasing every day.

“I think it will be a strong Christmas,” he said.

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Holiday glow: Ceremony opens Wonderland of Lights in Marshall
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MARSHALL — Hundreds of people gathered Wednesday evening in downtown Marshall for the opening ceremony of the annual Wonderland of Lights.

“I just wanted to welcome you all back to the Wonderland of Lights,” said Mayor Amy Ware.

“After 2020, we needed this joy back into our lives, so I hope 2021 and this Christmas season is full of joy and love and hope for you all,” Ware said as she welcomed attendees and introduced special guests Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Reflecting on the occasion, Marshall Main Street Director Veronique Ramirez said how excited she was to be a part of the planning as a newcomer to the city.

“This is incredible. I’ve heard so many stories about how Marshall really comes together during Christmastime, and this is evidence of (that),” she said.

Daniel Duke, the city’s new tourism director, also welcomed the crowd.

“Having the opening of Wonderland of Lights so close to Thanksgiving is perfect,” Duke said. “We should all be thankful that we’re all here. COVID is subsiding; we can celebrate the holidays together and look forward to a great new year.”

Ramirez thanked volunteers, the City Council and mayor for their devotion to the project.

“It truly took a village to make Wonderland of Lights happen, and this is just the beginning,” she said. “We’re excited about next year. We’re already starting to plan things. We hope you enjoy this season.”

Wonderland of Lights features an outdoor ice skating rink, a carousel, a Christmas train and horse-drawn carriages from 6 to 9 p.m. every Thursday to Sunday through Dec. 23. All of Santa’s Village activities will be free to the public.

For more information and a schedule, visit marshalltexas.net/483/Wonderland-of-Lights-2021 .

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Gregg County Pct. 2 Constable Billy Fort resigns after October arrest

Billy Fort, who is in his sixth term as a Gregg County Pct. 2 constable, has submitted his resignation after pleading guilty to driving his official vehicle while intoxicated.

Fort, 55, said in a letter dated Nov. 18 addressed to the Gregg County Commissioners Court that his resignation will become effective at the end of the year. The commissioners are set for a regular meeting at 10 a.m. Monday at which time they are expected to, among other items, accept Fort’s letter, according to the meeting agenda.

“It is with great regret that after 36 years of faithful public service to Gregg County, first as Paramedic for Kilgore EMS and then as Constable Precinct 2 for Gregg County, I must submit my resignation letter as I enter my retirement effective December 31, 2021,” the letter said.

The letter is dated the same day Fort pleaded guilty to a DWI charge in a plea agreement. According to court records, Fort received a 180-day suspended jail sentence and one year of probation on community supervision for the charge after his October arrest. Fort also was ordered to complete 40 hours of community service, pay $875 in fines and fees as well as attend DWI and drug classes.

A special condition of his plea was that Fort must surrender his peace officer license and resign as constable.

In his letter, Fort said he regrets the circumstances surrounding his resignation. He noted he served with his father, former Pct. 2 Justice of the Peace Arthur Fort who died in February, and praised the precinct’s residents and officials.

“It is the Best Precinct in the Best County in the Best State of the Best Nation on this Earth,” he said.

Longview police responded at 5:11 a.m. on Oct. 12 to Gilmer Road and Evergreen Street about a reckless driver in the area. A witness reported seeing a constable’s SUV swerving in and out of lanes on Gilmer Road and almost hitting another vehicle, according to police.

An officer saw the vehicle turn into the parking lot of Brookshire’s, 3354 Gilmer Road, police said. The officer identified the driver as Fort.

Fort showed “several signs” of being intoxicated, police said, and he admitted to having taken Xanax and an unknown muscle relaxer before driving his patrol unit. After Fort failed three sobriety tests, he was arrested.

Bond was set at $5,000 during Fort’s initial court appearance. On the afternoon of Oct. 12, however, a felony charge of obstruction or retaliation was added. He was released the following day on bonds totaling $45,000. The felony charge was not listed on court records pertaining to Fort’s plea agreement.

As part of the conditions of his release on bond, Fort had to surrender all firearms, use an ignition interlock device and is barred from driving county vehicles.

In 2005, Fort pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor deadly conduct charge and was sentenced to six months of deferred probation while he was constable. According to reports, Fort fired a gun in his home and appeared to be under the influence.

The report stated that he “smelled of alcohol and was very incoherent. Mr. Fort had slurred speech and was unable to comprehend all of the questions he was asked.”

Former District Attorney Bill Jennings told the News-Journal at the time that neither Fort’s plea nor the probation would affect his constable position.