Some 450,000 tourists visit Ashland each year, but few can be found on Main Street sidewalks this time of year. Downtown parking spaces that send summer drivers in circles are easily found on a cold day in February. In the winter, downtown Ashland's booming economy hangs by a thread.

"We survive the winter by saving because the summer months are so fantastic," says Judi Honor&

233;, an owner of Shakespeare Company Books Antiques. "Everyone puts aside money in the summer for the winter."

After Christmas and before the Angus Bowmer Theatre opens, downtown merchants depend on creativity to lure shoppers.

"We're having a mocha party this month," says Marya Hecht, owner of Nectar Eco Boutique, which opened six months ago. "We're sending e-mails and offering 20 percent off on our clothing to the locals."

At Ashland Drug, pharmacist Sandy Allen says it's the longtime employees that keep customers coming through the door in the slow months.

"Our staff has been committed over the years and they get to know the customers," Allen says. "They remember the names of their kids and their dogs and they ask about them."

The lone pharmacy in a downtown that once boasted four, Ashland Drug's success is partly due to its willingness to accommodate changing demographics.

"We carry walkers now for the aging population and we don't carry toys anymore because the price of housing has driven young families away from Ashland," Allen says.

Some downtown merchants deal with the winter doldrums by closing for the month of January or closing one day of the week. But Paddington Station stays open seven days a week.

"Some days we have few customers but the doors stay open because the owners are so committed to their employees and they want to keep them working," says floor manager Joe Collins, one of 12 employees at Paddington Station.

With the Elizabethan Stage a block away, theater hours dictate store hours in the summer, says owner Don Hammond, who has owned the shop at 125 East Main for the past 14 of its 35 years.

"Of course we don't close for the winter," Hammond says. "Who's going to come down to the store to buy stuff if it's closed?"

Main Street may be quiet in February but it's packed in July with 100,000 people coming to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"It's great when people walking down the sidewalk come in our door, whether they buy something or not," he says.

Sandi Globus retired from owning a fabric shop in the northern California tourist town of Trinidad and in May 2006 opened Fabric of Vision at 145 East Main in Ashland. She wishes more local people would discover downtown's unique inventory in the winter.

"Tourists are the lifeline," Globus says. "But I wish we could tap into the residents who moved here because they loved everything about Ashland, especially the quaint shops downtown. Sometimes it seems once they move here, they stop coming downtown."

Downtown merchants pride themselves in hard-to-find items such as contemporary Japanese and bamboo fabrics, soy candles, original copies of Treasure Island illustrated by NC Wyeth and dresses made by seamstresses in the Pacific Northwest.

"We have women come in our store who have been everywhere in the world and they can't believe they can find a dress so intelligently designed for the body," says Elise McManus Peters, who 16 years ago opened Heart Hands at 255 East Main.

She fights the winter blues with half-off sales on velvet dresses and by launching a new online store at heart-hands.com.

"We're trying to increase business by having a bigger market, a world market," she says.

Winter shoppers are fewer and more frugal than summer tourists from big cities who seem relaxed, generous and appreciative of Main Street bargains, says Gary Foll, a caricature artist from Art and Soul Gallery.

"This painting would sell for $2,000 to $3,000 in Scottsdale, Arizona," he says, pointing to an $800 impressionistic work. "But people don't come to Ashland to buy art; they come to the theater and art is secondary. And then many want scenes of the Rogue Valley to remember their visit."

One winter strategy is to play up Valentine's Day by offering lodging packages with vouchers for local stores, says Mary Pat Parker, director of public relations and marketing.

"In February and March we have the Winter of Romance in Ashland and in March we have the Chocolate Festival," Parker says. "We're trying to increase winter traffic."

A quiet January provides opportunity to change inventory, redecorate or take vacations, says David Ralston, an owner of Shakespeare Company Books Antiques who recently returned from a trip to San Francisco, where he visited friends and shopped for the store.

"Winter is always slow and we just expect it," he says. "In January we close because the cost to heat the store is more than ticket sales."

His business partner Honor&

233; uses the slow times to cater to the locals, even if it means pulling friends from the sidewalk into the store.

"I saw my friend Michaela walking with her son and I asked Mason if he likes to read," says UC Berkeley graduate Honor&

233;, a retired elementary teacher. "When he said, 'Yes, my mom reads to me a lot,' I said, 'Come in the store so I can give you a book.' Besides promoting the store, I like to encourage children to read."