Ashland merchants say business has been late to arrive, but good this season, and they expect sales today, the last day before Christmas, to be robust.

Kathy Rishel is dashing into downtown Ashland stores, racing against time to find last-minute gifts for Christmas. Standing outside Travel Essentials on Friday morning, she won't confess to what she has purchased because the Green Springs resident doesn't want to spoil the surprise. But she will admit that she holds off shopping until the few days before Dec. 25.

"I always wait," she says, holding a bag full of stocking stuffers, "and I don't know why."

Ashland merchants say business has been late to arrive, but good this season, and they expect sales today, the last day before Christmas, to be robust.

"It's busy, but it's fun," says Kelly Jean Hammond of Paddington Station. "Most of our shoppers have it all together and just need a few more items, so the mood is calm."

Her customers are buying small, practical items, such as $12 "texting" gloves and $10 Lilypad silicone lids to top dishes in the fridge, stove or microwave.

Some of the most popular gifts, such as black diamonds at Gold & Gems Fine Jewelry, have sold out. Other coveted items, such as hand-painted copper clocks made by local artist Linda Lamore at Nimbus, had to be restocked.

Luring shoppers in Ashland stores are the abundance of locally made objects as well as personal services such as gift wrapping and delivery.

Will Johnson of the Ashland Fly Shop says, "Some people come in here and say, 'Oh, my goodness, I don't know what to get.' But we're here to help. If they know a little about where the person likes to fish, we can help choose a tackle based on that." In a pinch, there are always fingerless gloves, Merino wool neck gaiters and beanies.

Brian Beels of Unicorn Gifts & Toys says his customers turn to him rather than shop online because they are seeking an experience.

"In our tech world, it's OK to buy office paper online, but if it's a gift, people want to touch it and they want to come in for inspiration," he says. "We ask them, 'Are you on a mission or an adventure?' "

Retailers across the nation are reporting strong December sales, with customers buying clothes, cars, furniture and electronics. Steve Cole of Soundpeace says he's experiencing a boost in business, too.

"I can't really point to one specific item that is a best seller because we don't sell iPads," says Cole.

Instead, he says shoppers are looking for items with meaning. "This could be a scented candle for relaxation, an item with inspirational words or a crystal that holds a particular significance," he says.

Buying something produced locally adds a personal touch to giving, says Anne Robison of The Crown Jewel. Her shoppers like Ashland-based Papaya! tote bags, calendars and journals.

Ashland-based artist Alissa Clark can't make her fish-motif ceramic mugs fast enough to keep up with demand at the Ashland Art Center and the Ashland Fly Shop, but there are still a few of her plates ($20 to $30).

Hemporium was busy Friday, selling Hempress Arise flowing pants and hooded vests by local designer Heidi Carlson.

Several clothing stores are also seeing sales in practical but luxurious sweaters, scarves and gloves made of natural fibers. "It's a warm and cozy way to make ladies happy," says Laura Pasquini of KIXX.

Men who have loved ones shopping for them at Nimbus are being treated to hand-woven chenille scarves in coral, lime and royal blue, and stylish Robert Graham shirts.

"We were concerned that luxury items might dip in this economy," says Ron Hansen of Gold & Gems, "but I'm happy to say fine jewelry buyers would rather have something unique than ordinary."

At his store, people are buying handmade, silver jewelry by Toby Pomeroy and custom jewelry designed by Hansen.

At the other end of town, men are purchasing massage oil and Baci lingerie for the women in their lives at the Love Revolution. "They are so sweet," says Brenda Johnson, "and they want to take care of their women."

Organic skin care products, bamboo clothing and gift certificates for facials are selling well at Alchemy Botanicals. "We're getting wiped out of our bulk teas," says Diana Taracena.

Speedy sewers are buying materials at Fabric of Vision to make gifts — aprons, scarves and bags — and pretty ribbon to wrap and decorate.

Yarn of all colors is being sold at Websters Handspinners and Weavers, with customers saying they will make hats, coats and other chill-erasing clothing. Unlike Websters' online customers who buy knitting materials, people who visit the store can also see a display of clothing and jewelry.

Collapsible backpacks and Next to Skin tops are popular gifts at Travel Essentials. "It's been an excellent year," says Bob Bestor, "and it feels as if everything in the store is selling well."

People who want to unplug from electronic devices might appreciate a copy of the biography "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson, which is selling out at several Ashland bookstores. Gift editions of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and other classics are best sellers at Shakespeare Books & Antiques, and children's favorites are in demand at Tree House Books.

And, for those with time and money to spare, Soundpeace's Cole says people are buying gifts for themselves, "complete with a box and a bow to make it special under the tree."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email jeastman@dailytidings.com.