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The next couple of weeks are crucial. This is the make-or-break period as far as many businessesí bottom lines are concerned.

There is a larger meaning to the holiday season than merchandising, of course. Religious celebrations and charitable activities blossom this month. Families are preparing to gather to renew Christmas traditions and create new ones.

But both the buying and the giving of gifts can be thoughtfully done in the spirit of the season. Consider the local small business owners, who still are struggling in our community to keep their doors open and keep our neighbors employed, and how local residents can help them.

Many economists will tell you that small businesses are the economic engine of the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses continue to employ more than half of all private-sector workers and generate 60 percent to 80 percent of new net jobs every year.

Itís not a stretch to say that as small businesses go, so go our banks, our housing markets and, most important, our confidence.

Much of the money we spend in St. County stays here and works for the development of our community. That means additional dollars for our schools, roads and all forms of public safety. Our libraries and parks benefit, as well. Sen. Ben Cardin reminded shoppers recently that for every $100 spent with locally owned, independent stores, $68 returns to the community through local taxes, payroll and other expenditures.

And remember that local merchants are involved in just about every layer of our community. Has an online retailer ever bought tickets to your childís school play or bought a half-page ad in a football program or yearbook? Contributed to your church suppers or donated to community projects? Kicked in a few dollars for your kidís travel soccer team? Put up in their windows posters for your upcoming event? Contributed door prizes to a school carnival? Probably not.

At a time when household spending continues to be a little tighter than before the recession, itís important to keep St. Maryís Countyís businesses owners on our radar screen.

With Christmas closing in and the hectic holiday pace picking up, donít drive an hour or more to finish shopping. Donít wonder whether the things you buy online will be delivered on time. Save time and worry by shopping locally.

Youíll be supporting businesses that have invested their resources in St. Maryís, and the money you spend on gifts will keep giving, passed around the community in ways you may never see.