It was nearly 11 p.m. when Melanie Deveikas arrived in front of Terra Firma on Leonard Street with her eyes on a bright green bracelet for a gift.
But Deveikas wasn't just window shopping at that late hour; the Watertown resident was anxiously waiting to get inside to continue a night of bargains and friendship.
She and her friends, Lauren Greenhow and Amy Rodriguez from far off Newburyport, had come from a cooking demonstration and were strolling Belmont Center for an extended day of shopping during the third annual Midnight Madness, the all-night small business promotional event, held Monday night, Dec. 3.
"It's a girls night out," said Greenhow, who just dropped a pile of cash – well, she used her credit card – at A Chocolate Dream for the clients of her husband's landscaping business, Greenhow Inc.
As with Deveilkas and her friends, twos, threes and more of mostly women trekked throughout Belmont Center, heading to the 18 shops which extended their operation hours until midnight.
Despite the late hour, most of the stores were packed with bargain hunters as the businesses initiated sales or hourly price cuts or just so to sample a glass of cheer or other goodies to enhance the shopping experience.
A group of seven girlfriends from Belmont were hanging out in front of Irresistibles to inventory what they had bought while more than a dozen were shopping and imbibing at bessie blue.
"We have been full for most of the night," said bessie blue's owner Lee Gaston who has been leading this year's Madness, a growing retail phenomenon among independent local enterprises around the country.
The Center's Midnight Madness began three years ago when the owner of An Elegant Affair, whose original store in Winchester participated in that town's late night shopping promo, organized it for Belmont in 2010. Most participants were surprised to find their stores busy with retail traffic when it occured in mid-December.
When the Elegant Affair's Belmont store closed after the initial event, Gaston didn't want the stores to miss out on the business initiative.
"We were all on board for the first year and it was pretty successful so I couldn't see it end," said Gaston.
The event is as much a chance to go out to hunt for sales as it is an opportunity to socialize with shopkeepers and friends, with the shoppers male/femaile ratio decisively tilted at about 10 to 1 in the direction of women.
"It's more fun to shop with the ladies. The kids are in bed and my husband doesn't (mind)," said Cindy Luthern of Winchester, with some wine in her left hand as she shifts through the merchandise with her right.
"It gets you in the (holiday) mood," said Gaston.
"A lot of people have been chatting about it," said Belmont's Caroline Boyle, who was about to purchase plaid "Belmont" sweat bottoms.
Other business owners also got Madness fever.
"It's the busiest in three years," said Gerry Dickhaut, owner of Champions Sporting Goods. "It's been non-stop since 7:30 p.m."
Dickhaut said Madness is another incentive for the community to come out and support the businesses "that make the Center a place to socialize."
At Marmalade, owner Leigh Standley was dressed in pink-and-white pajamas – which her entire staff was also wearing and got to keep after Monday – which allowed her to get into the fun nature of the night.
"It's a lark. But I am really pleasantly surprised how busy we have been," said Standley, saying that the spot had been "slammed since 6 p.m." with many coming in to buy in bulk especially candles (get them soon as they will all be gone before Christmas, Standley said) and ornaments for Christmas trees and around the house.
"It's a great way to kick start the season," she said.
By 11:15 p.m., the store was filled, the staff busy and Standley had already served a case and a half of champagne to customers.
"But what I really love is the fun it is," she said.