The starting gun of the holiday shopping season has already started. For more and more people, that means a dash to the computer instead of downtown. Consider as you plan your gift hunting that this Saturday is a bit of a special day – Small Business Saturday.

This is a national movement to focus attention on firms that are so foundational to the economy – across the country and here in Malheur County. In a rural county like ours, small businesses are especially important to the community. They often aren’t well known despite what they have to offer, and that’s one of the ideas behind Small Business Saturday.

The story of small business isn’t new. In Malheur County, we have about 2,000 businesses. Some have big marquees and marketing budgets. Most are more modest, with few if any employees, a sometimes hand-painted sign, and a small footprint. In Oregon, nine out of 10 businesses can be classified as small, yet they provide at least half the jobs. They are owned by families, men, women, minorities and veterans. They represent a demographic snapshot.

As anyone who deals with small business knows, owners usually take a special pride in what they do. If they provide a service, they do so with that personal touch and informal style that makes them a joy to work with compared to some corporate outlet. If they are retailers, you can bet they are offering one-of-kind or hard-to-find items.

That’s why Saturday should be a bit of a treasure hunt for Malheur County shoppers. Take some time and challenge yourself to find those small shops you might overlook. Walk the downtowns of Ontario, Vale and Nyssa. Search the internet for local suppliers for the gifts you know you want to give. You may be surprised by who’s making what in a home shop or studio that could perfectly fill the bill for you.

Such determination has rewards. You get the satisfaction of not giving the ordinary this season. Recipients of everything from handmade soaps to saddles will appreciate the uniqueness of a gift that doesn’t say “Made in China.” You learn about small businesses you weren’t aware of – and you help build their customer base. And we’re betting you’ll make a new acquaintance or two you’ll want to stay in touch with.

There are some critics who say Small Business Saturday is just a crass marketing tool. Bah humbug. It’s a way in our community for people to connect with people in meaningful ways. It’s not charity – those businesses still have to earn your business even after you find them and walk in the door. But give them a chance. Helping sustain small business, after all, helps sustain Malheur County. – LZ