Berkshire County merchants host homemade sales tax holiday

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PITTSFIELD — With the state's annual sales tax holiday canceled for the second straight year, a few Berkshire merchants are holding their own versions of that event this weekend by discounting some items.

Pittsfield-based Carr Hardware and a group of merchants in Lenox will both hold their own events Saturday and Sunday. While it's possible that other individual merchants across the county may also participate, representatives of several Berkshire chambers of commerce said they had heard of no other organized efforts.

The 14 participating Lenox merchants include: MacKimmie Co., Scott Barrow Photography, Art and Chocolate, Lenox Print and Mercantile, Nejaime's Wine Cellar, Wit Gallery, Design Menagerie; Lenoxology Store, Berkshire Poster, Purple Plume, Casablanca, Shooze, Sweatz and Willowbrook, according to Lenox Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kameron Spaulding.

Last year, Downtown Pittsfield Inc., a city merchant organization, and a few small business owners in West Stockbridge organized their own events to replace the annual sales tax holiday, which gives consumers a break on the state's 6.25 percent sales tax on certain items. Efforts to determine if either of those entities planned to replicate 2016's plans were unsuccessful.

The state held the popular no-tax holiday weekend every year between 2009 and 2015 before canceling it last year.

Carr Hardware, one of the nine members of Downtown Pittsfield Inc. who participated in 2016, has dubbed this weekend's two-day event a "tax free revolution." It will take place at all four of Carr Hardware's Berkshire outlets, in Great Barrington, Lee, North Adams and Pittsfield.

"We are having a no-tax revolution; we are revolting," said Carr Hardware co-owner Bart Raser. "It's such a huge event for customers and Carr Hardware that we had to find a way to keep it alive. We do 4 1/2 times more business on no-tax weekend than on any other weekend in August."

From a financial point of view, last year's event at Carr, "was not even close to being as successful as a no tax weekend," Raser said, "but it still sent an important message: We did it last year and we'll do it again. We had pressure from our customers to do it."

With the state having officially canceled the state's tax free weekend, Raser is legally prohibited from waiving the 6.25 sales tax on items that are purchased at Carr on Saturday and Sunday. He plans to compensate by offsetting prices with discounts.

Raser isn't sure how many extra customers this year's event will attract to Carr's four county stores.

"We'll have more people than if we didn't do it, that's certainly what we hope," he said. "I guess I'll just leave it at that."

In Lenox, the chamber asked local retailers to come up with an alternative plan to replace tax free weekend after it was canceled last week. The participating merchants will be offering discounts that are equal to the state's 6.25 sales tax on eligible items.

"We would love the state to step in and make sure the program returns, but in the end we will pass on same savings to our customers," Spaulding said.

"This has always been tax free weekend, so we decided to do something for our customers," said Judie Culver, who has owned Purple Plume on Church Street for 36 years. "If it encourages them to shop, great. If we give something back to them, I'm just as happy."

Purple Plume sells mostly women's clothing, and any clothing items under $175 are not subject to state sales tax. But consumers are required to pay sales tax on clothing items priced over that $175 threshold, which are known as "luxury clothing," according to Culver. The taxable portion is the amount above $175.

"Eighty percent of our sales are not taxable anyways," Culver said. "But it might put someone over the edge to buy that beautiful necklace that goes with that dress."

Back in Pittsfield, longtime downtown merchant, Steven Valenti, who owns Steven Valenti Clothing for Men on North Street, said he may hold his own event this weekend to support Carr Hardware's effort.

"I saw that Bart was considering doing it and I could tag along with him," Valenti said. "It's real easy to do. ... If it helps Carr's cause and Downtown Pittsfield Inc., I'm willing to do it."

Valenti said he has had his best summer since opening his business in 1983.

"We're blowing through inventory like it was back in the '60s," he said. "We're trying to keep up. I've got three tailors right now working like crazy. If it makes a difference, then I can tag along with Bart."

Mad Macs, which has stores in Pittsfield and Williamstown, participated in last year's event that was organized by Downtown Pittsfield Inc., but co-owner Scott Kirchner said he plans to hold his own discount event before school starts next month.

"We'll probably do something, not necessarily for this weekend," he said. "We'll have back-to-school specials in the next couple of weeks."

Unlike stores like Purple Plume, Mad Macs, which sells and services Apple branded computer products, including Macintosh computers, iPads and iPods, has to compete with some online retailers who are not required to pay sales tax in Massachusetts.

"Quite frankly, I'm disappointed that the state decided not to do it again," said Kirchner, referring to the sales tax holiday "It's a substantial boost for us. We see a significant decrease in revenue without the tax holiday.

"You've got to remember we're not that far from New Hampshire," which has no state sales tax, Kirchner said. "people will make that drive."

Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at 413-496-6224.


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