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Crawford Square has a new neighbor on North Street in Pittsfield -- Unusual Wedding Rings & More. When the small clothing store that had occupied the space closed, the owners took it.

PITTSFIELD -- Gayle Rotenberg refers to the space simply as "the window."

It's a storefront space in the Crawford Square building that looks out on North Street, where Gayle and her husband, Herman, have recently moved their small retail business, Unusual Wedding Rings & More.

They had previously been located in the same building, but in a different space that didn't look out on the street. When the small clothing store that formerly occupied that space closed, the Rotenbergs decided to take it.

"We were supposed to originally get that three years ago," Gayle said. "It took us a long time to make a decision and it was gone."

The Rotenbergs' situation is not atypical in the retail market. Stores come. Stores go. Sometimes, several small businesses close at the same time, which happened in downtown Pittsfield this summer. But in the Berkshires, anyway, merchants say there always seems to be somebody willing to fill the empty spaces.

"There's always people looking," Herman Rotenberg said. "There's always a need for something else."

No state or local agency tracks exact numbers that would show the number of retail businesses that have opened or closed in the Berkshires in 2013.

But there are general statistics available. According to wage and employment information provided by the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, the number of retail trade establishments in both the Berkshires and the county's five largest municipalities -- Pittsfield, North Adams, Adams, Great Barrington and Williamstown -- remained relatively stable between the first quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013, the latest period for which those figures are available.

The retail trade sector includes stores that sell merchandise and the services that support them, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provides figures for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

Businesses in this category include car and parts dealers, furniture and home furnishing stores, electronics and appliance stores, food and beverage stores, and stores that sell clothing and closing accessories, according to the BLS.

Those figures indicate that the number of retail establishments in the Berkshires did drop by 32 between the first quarter of 2012 and the same time period this year, from 680 to 648. But among the five municipalities, the most significant drops were in Great Barrington (10) and Pittsfield (9).

"If you were to ask me what I take from that, I guess the good news is that we've remained pretty consistent in the amount of establishments," said Michael Supranowicz, the president and CEO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.

"There's always going to be retail and restaurants that close every year for one reason or another, and there are always new ideas that come up and retail and restaurants that start every year," he said. "We continue to have an economy here that at least allows for that steady amount of business, and that is a good thing."

In Pittsfield, the county's largest community, the total number of retail establishments dropped from 187 to 178 between the first quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013. But the total wages generated by those establishments remained the same at $21.1 million.

Pam Tobin, the executive director of Downtown Pittsfield Inc., said downtown Pittsfield has several retail anchor stores including long-time merchants like Steven Valenti Clothing for Men and Jim's House of Shoes. But she said establishing a business can be a struggle anywhere.

"Most businesses don't make it the first two years, so it makes it difficult for individual operators to succeed anywhere," Tobin said. "I think we have a solid base downtown. Some merchants have recently been securing retailers to go into some vacant spaces as well.

"They're moving retailers around," she said, "which is a positive sign."

In Great Barrington, South County's largest town, the number of retail establishments went from 95 to 85. Average monthly employment dropped by only eight workers from 963 to 955, even though it went slightly over the 1,000 mark between the second and fourth quarters on 2012. Total wages increased slightly from $6.1 million to $6.2 million.

Betsy Andrus, the executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, said that like everywhere else retailers in Great Barrington have been "a little apprehensive" the last couple of years due to the uncertain economy. The looming Main Street reconstruction project has made merchants nervous too, she said.

"But I think they're beginning to feel a little more confident," she said. "I've followed up with businesses, and as soon as one goes out, another comes right in.

"Businesses tend to be reasonably successful," she said. "They're not rolling in dough, but they're successful."

There hasn't been much fluctuation in retail trade businesses in North County, either.

In North Adams, the number of retail establishments remained basically the same, from 60 in the first quarter of 2012 to 59 in the first quarter of this year. The average monthly employment however, jumped from 855 to 880 over that time span, while wages generated by retail trade businesses jumped from $5.24 million to $5.6 million.

In 2013, North Adams has added three big retail businesses: Tractor Supply Co., Ocean State Job Lot, and Walmart, which replaced its former store in the Steeple City with the county's first Superstore.

North Adams city councilor and downtown merchant Keith Bona hasn't see a lot of new retailers moving into the city, but said a lot of existing businesses have begun to expand.

"Carr [Hardware] built a new building and doubled its size," said Bona, who owns the Berkshire Emporium on Main Street. "Every supermarket chain up here in the last couple of years has put a lot into their buildings. Maybe's it's Walmart competing with them, and they feel they have to upgrade. I'm not sure."

In Adams, the number of retail trade establishments went from 27 during the first quarter of 2012 to 24 during the first quarter of 2013. Total wages increased slightly to $1.8 million from $1.762 million, although retail sector employment fell from 278 to 261 workers.

One longstanding merchant believes the retail environment is Adams is changing.

"I really think that there is less retail business there than there ever has been before," said Donna Riley, the general manager of Simmons Furniture, which her family is closing after operating the 134-year-old business since 1973. "Some of the bigger places have closed. For us, for instance, the major impact came when the fabric manufacturers closed down. That drove a lot of traffic, and traffic looking to buy things."

In Williamstown, the number of retail trade establishments went from 26 in the first quarter of 2012 to 22 in the first quarter of this year, after reaching 27 in the second and third quarters of 2012. Average monthly employment dropped from 181 to 180 workers, while total wages went from $1.04 million to $1.05 million.

The presence of Williams College makes the retail situation a little different in Williamstown than in the county's four other largest municipalities. On Spring Street, the town's main commercial area, the college owns close to 40 percent of the available retail space, according to Frederick Poddester, Williams' vice president of finance and administration.

Poddester said the college's goal is to keep Spring Street "vibrant" because a bustling commercial area is attractive to students, parents, faculty, staff, and the summer tourists who patronize the Williamstown Theater Festival.

Retailers need to appeal to all of those niches in order to succeed in Williamstown, said Jennifer Civello, the executive director of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce.

"It's really tough relying on a sole population," Civello said.

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6224.
On Twitter: @tonydobrow