During his 29 years of owning a business on Main Street in Ellicott City, Len Berkowitz has seen his work force ebb from a high of eight to today, when he is the only full-time employee.
"The economy is killing us," said Berkowitz, who operates a custom stained-glass store called Great Frames. "It's very difficult right now."
His wife, Sherry Fackler-Berkowitz, has taken a part-time job at The Mall in Columbia until things improve.
Despite the national economic gloom that prevails as the holiday shopping season hits the homestretch, others who own businesses in the historic district and elsewhere in the county say they are working harder and holding their own.
Sue Whary said her custom Sweet Cascades candy shop, also on Main Street, is doing OK, for now.
"People are always in the mood for a piece of chocolate," she said. "You can come in and get a truffle for $1.50."
Novelty items such as her chocolate crabs (made with Old Bay seasoning), sugar pigs (which include bacon) and chocolate jalapenos are items people can't find anywhere else.
"I think people appreciate the fact that we make it all here," she said, adding that the staff for her three-year-old business consists of her husband, her mother, her son and a neighbor who volunteers - all part-time, while she works seven days a week.
Local business owners say they are mostly maintaining, if not growing, their sales despite the national recession. But they are also doing more to try to attract customers.
Arranging holiday promotions, offering meal specials and searching for high-quality, lower-priced wines are ways that merchants are trying to counter the chains' national advertising edge.
Ian Mendelsohn, owner of I.M. Wine in Maple Lawn, an upscale community in Fulton, said people continue to buy spirits, although many are choosing less-pricey brands.
"People are going to drink," he said.
His sales are up slightly by volume, and he's searching for good wines, even if lesser known, that he can sell at slightly lower prices, he said.
The goal, owners say, is surviving until conditions improve.
"It's harder for the mom-and-pop shops," said Pamela J. Klahr, president and chief executive officer of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. "They're telling us that it's tough but they're doing everything they can to make it exciting and fun to shop. They're trying to step out of the normal, everyday business as usual."
Joe Barbera, past president of the Howard County Restaurant Association and the owner of Aida's bistro in Gateway, said he has seen a difference in business over the past six to 18 months. But his loyal customers are still coming.
"There's definitely been a drop-off in business," he said, adding that his business has remained steady.
Higher-end restaurants are suffering more, Barbera said. He has tried to counter the downturn with specials such as a three-course dinner for $30 to $35.
In Maple Lawn, Mary Jordan's two-year-old Bra-la-la shop is holding its own, she said.
"We consider ourselves more a destination," she said.
The shop offers a custom upscale service, offering quality fabrics and individual fittings of a range of undergarments. She said she detected a lull in business in October but thinks it was seasonal, based on last year's sales records.
Greenebaum and Rose Associates Inc., the developer of Maple Lawn, is helping merchants there by paying for some advertising, Jordan said.
The business community had its own late-night holiday season shopping event planned for Friday, calling it "Miracle on Maple Lawn Boulevard," Jordan said.
Maple Lawn recently suffered a setback when the well-known restaurant Trapeze closed. A pub restaurant called Looney's, with locations in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood and in Bel Air, has applied for a liquor license for the former Trapeze location.