Owners of the Children's Boutique in Center City put out a sidewalk sign and hung balloons on it: "Small Business Saturday: Deal."

They were embracing a fledgling national movement to follow up Black Friday mall madness with a day devoted to small-business owners.

The Small Business Saturday campaign is being touted by American Express and through social-media sites including Twitter and Facebook.

Gov. Christie joined some other public officials around the nation who heralded the idea, inviting New Jerseyans to join him and his wife in shopping at local stores. In a news release, his office said the state had more than 28,000 retail establishments with 20 employees or fewer.

In Center City, few stores seemed to be advertising the campaign, and some merchants were not aware of it. Those that were said they were grateful for the positive attention.

"We're happy with the idea," said Linda Berman, owner of the Children's Boutique. "There aren't a lot of individually owned companies on this street. We are one of few, and we are proud of it."

The city did its part, offering free meter parking starting at 11 a.m. Saturday in all commercial districts, and it will continue to do so every Saturday through New Year's Day.

Small businesses in Center City were split on prospects for this holiday season.

"Yesterday was the best Black Friday we had in a long time," said Berman, whose family has run the business for 43 years, the last 12 at 1702 Walnut St. "It looks like the shoppers are all coming back, especially for the kids."

Her son, Peter, also an owner, said business was up about 10 percent from last year's Black Friday.

On Saturday, the store continued its Black Friday special of 10 percent off on sales of $50 or more, and sales remained strong, Peter Berman said less than an hour before closing time. Customers noticed the sign about Small Business Saturday, and "we did get positive feedback," he said.

At Eternity Fashion on Chestnut Street, sales also seemed better than in the last couple of years, owner Nira Jacobson said.

However, up the street at Foot Prints shoe store, workers said sales were slower.

"It wasn't really as busy as we thought," employee Marie Reeves said.

It would help, she said, if the city offered free parking all weekend.

Most merchants interviewed were not aware that the city had started free parking on Saturdays.

"We'll put a sign up at the front desk," said Tuesday Gordon-Gaines, manager and buyer at Joan Shepp, a family-owned women's clothing store at 1616 Walnut St.

Many motorists also seemed unaware. A young woman was feeding a kiosk on Walnut Street when a reporter told her that the parking was free. She had already inserted $4.

Linda Miller, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Parking Authority, said the city had been offering free parking on Saturdays during the holidays for years - so long, it did not put out a news release this year.

"We just assumed everyone would know it at this point," she said.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.