At one end of the spectrum is Julie Craig, nearly bubbling over the 40 percent sales gain she estimates her Towson store has posted this Christmas. At the other is Gloria White, figuring that economic recovery or no, watching the bucks at Christmastime is, as ever, the name of the game.

"Christmas has been great. The mall has really picked up a lot," said Ms. Craig, whose Whimsicals shop is in Towson Commons. "I think people in general are spending more."

"I'm a 10-month employee, so I have to live on a budget," said Mrs. White, a grandmother who works as a children's aide at Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School in Baltimore, from her seat on a bench at Reisterstown Road Plaza. She works with a budget and she starts shopping in July, she said, whether the economy is up or down.

In random conversations in malls around the Baltimore area yesterday, the picture that emerged was one of noncommittal consumers and cautiously optimistic merchants.

The economy is slightly better, the fear of layoffs is a little less severe and, according to many merchants, credit cards a bit more freely used. But two afternoons before Christmas, Towson Town Center was still uncrowded enough for Trish Farrell of Timonium to maneuver her double-wide stroller with relative ease.

"Personally, our industry, my company has had a great year," said Mrs. Farrell, who works in commercial real estate. But that doesn't mean she is ready to pull out the stops.

"We planned and budgeted this year," she said. "You want to d what you can within reason."

Most merchants said things were going pretty well, and several noted that demand was especially strong for high-end goods.

"Business is up 30 percent," said Tammy Avery, manager of The Knot Shop at Towson Town Center, which specializes in designer and novelty ties. "Our business at the $20 end is not that high. The average is about $35."

"We're seeing luxurious fabrics; people are specifically requesting cashmere coats," said Tonya Young, manager of Nordstrom in Towson.

But Ms. Young said sales were basically the same as last year. That's not entirely bad, she said: Last year was a good Christmas for the industry generally as consumer confidence spiked briefly higher after the election, and Ms. Young said the Towson Nordstrom was still riding the wave of hype from the store's September 1992 grand opening, making last year's figures tough to beat by much.

Mathias J. DeVito, chairman and chief executive of the Rouse Co., agrees with Ms. Young that while Christmas looks pretty good this year, slow growth will be more typical than very rapid gains.

Indeed, he said, Christmas had gotten off to a slow start for Rouse, as it did for retailers nationally who posted smaller-than-expected sales gains in November. But he said the malls have picked up in recent weeks.

"I think it's going to be a late but very good Christmas," said Mr. DeVito, whose company owns nearly 80 malls across the country, including Mondawmin, White Marsh, Owings Mills, Columbia, Harborplace and the Gallery at Harborplace locally. "I think the consumer is feeling a little better. Even though consumer confidence is a yo-yo, there's pent-up demand."

But Shirley Semone, manager of the Jordan Marie Shop at Owings Mills Mall, said the recovery won't soon bring back the days of the mid-1980s when customers would bring their goodies to the counter without even checking the price tags.

"I don't spend as much as I used to," she said. "I don't think anyone does."

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