Weekly Wire
NewCityNet First In Line for Christmas

By Frank Sennett

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  For most of us, the Christmas season stretches far beyond the twelve days of yore. Through the miracle of modern marketing, our holly jolliness begins when rubber masks give way to aluminum trees at the discount stores November 1. By the time college football crowns a national champion January 2, we've grown so numb from sixty-two days of marbled fudge, aftershave gift sets and family togetherness that we embrace the mundane reality of the workaday world with almost-religious zeal. But a growing number of Americans are refusing to leave the season's snow-globe biosphere for the barren land where Tiny Tim is not a love-inspiring urchin, but a deceased ukulele-playing freak. Habitus of year-round holiday shops, these Yuletide lifestylers find the sitcoms of their lives stuck in repeats of very special Christmas episodes long after Santa has decamped to Bimini to work on his tan.

Trudi Wetzel, for instance, likes snowmen. A lot. Plush, porcelain, wooden and wall-hanging snowmen. Her collection has snowballed to the point where she's got more Frosties than Wendy's. "Oh goodness," Wetzel says when asked for a ballpark figure, "I couldn't even begin to count."

Browsing at the Holiday Shoppe in Libertyville, blonde pigtails framing her rosy cheeks, Wetzel says the collection helped her cope with the holidays after her husband died two-and-a-half years ago. "I couldn't handle Christmas," she says. "But snowmen I could keep up with. And just now I'm getting back my Christmas spirit. The snowmen let me think about Christmas without it being Christmas."

An extra bonus to collecting snowmen is the fact that "you can leave 'em up past Christmas," Wetzel adds. "I don't take them down until March, and I put them up in November. My house looks like a Hallmark shop."

Wetzel is a "real typical" Holiday Shoppe customer, notes manager Lin Dunne. People drop by year-round to discuss their Christmas collections, often staying for a cup of coffee and a conversation that might bear a strong resemblance to a counseling session.

"One lady from New York calls us two or three times a week, every week to discuss things," Dunne says. "And not just store things. Personal things. She must spend all day on the Internet or the phone. Talk about obsessed. We're Christmas-store therapists."

"And we don't charge by the hour," adds co-worker Gladys Savage. "The coffee pot is always on. It's a happy place, a fun place." A few minutes later, the phone rings. Guess who?

As the troubled New Yorker places her order, the two-story, turn-of-the-century farmhouse invites a closer inspection. Every room downstairs, it seems, houses a tiny, teeming, well-lit metropolis. There's Santa pedaling a three-wheeled cart of presents outside his house in North Pole Village. In the next room, a happy gent sits on a park bench reading a newspaper in the Christmas in the City display. Over in the fifties kitschland of The Original Snow Village, a father and son leave the Harley dealership toting wrapped gifts. Dad is a bald, paunchy biker in a leather jacket and sunglasses, but his face, nonetheless, is filled with good cheer. Children skate on a glassy pond in New England Village. Six geese can be seen a-laying in Dickens' Village. And tucked away in a back-room corner of the shop, a nutcracker vendor pushes his wares in Alpine Village, the least popular of the collector sets.

Since 1976, these elaborate town settings, complete with houses, shops, people, mountains, streets, rivers, trees and snow, have comprised the main offerings of Department 56, a Minnesota-based company which netted nearly $47 million on sales of $229 million last year. Department 56 drives the year-round Christmas business. New pieces in each of its porcelain and ceramic town collections come out in January. To build excitement, and clear the way for fresh stock, several pieces are "retired" each November. In the days and weeks after the introductions and before retirement day, collectors course through the aisles of Department 56 retailers like reindeer in flight.

The company's core customer is in her or his (yes, lots of men collect these villages, too) forties or fifties, with $50,000-$75,000 annual household income -- a good bit of it disposable. "We attract people who are very involved in family tradition," says Department 56 chairman and CEO Susan Engel.

Each intricately detailed house starts with a full architectural plan, then a cardboard model, followed by a clay sculpture, which is then turned into master molds for each piece. From the master molds come the production molds, each good for only twenty to thirty porcelain pieces. "The mold has to hold the detail and the more detail, the fewer houses per mold," Engel says. When the pieces come out of the kiln, Far Eastern workers put them together using liquid clay, then hand-cut and -paint the finished product, with some houses requiring as many as 400 tiny window cuts alone.

The pieces then go to dealers, who must agree to sell them year-round at full retail price. The rabid collector's market can drive prices on individual pieces, which normally sell for under $100, into the four-figure range.

The Holiday Shoppe's Dunne tells of a Springfield customer who buys one of every piece Department 56 puts out, at an annual cost of up to $4,000, only to leave them in their boxes to accrue value. Most people, however, cover their mantelpieces, coffee tables and rec rooms with the villages. One woman in the suburbs even moves her furniture out of the home every December and hires decorators to transform it into a Lilliputian wonderland. "A lot of the collectors carry major insurance," Savage says.

And when these collectors see a little house they need, they'll go to just about any lengths to get it. At the Holiday Shoppe, Dunne shows off a prized piece, the retired Cathedral Church of St. Mark, with a price-tag of $2,300. "I traded with a guy for it," she says of the foot-tall, blue-gray church. "I traded him a retired piece he really needed, worth about $400, plus a few other pieces. He was happy."

One afternoon at Christmas on the Avenue, a year-round shop in Michigan Avenue's Chicago Place mall that smells of cinnamon potpourri, a harried woman dressed in Gold Coast finery berates co-owner Julia Fair for not having a Nutcracker figurine. Fair's not sure she's heard of this piece, but the woman keeps insisting. "I've been everywhere looking for it," she says. "Everybody's out." Fair pulls out a pile of Department 56 catalogs and shows the woman the product line for the village in question.

"Just show me the stack," the woman demands, finally. "I know which booklet it's in. I'll be able to find it if you let me look."

Within a minute, the woman does indeed track down her coveted Nutcracker, albeit in the catalog of another, more-obscure village. Alas, there are none in stock. "Some people are just bonkers for this stuff," Fair says. "At least we both got to be right. I like it when things turn out that way."

Indeed, Scrooges need not apply for work in one of these stores. Dunne gravitated to the Holiday Shoppe because "I used to like to shop in the store." Fair got involved with Christmas on the Avenue seven years ago because "it just seems like everybody's in a good mood when they come in here. They come in with pictures of their villages to show." Even Department 56 honcho Engel calls the business a labor of love as much as anything else:

"A headhunter who I'd talked to over the years called me and I'd said no, no, no. But this time she said, 'It's just what you'd like.' I saw the villages in the New York showroom and I was in love. When I was a kid, we had huge model train sets and elaborate dollhouses. It was really a family event in our household. I got off on that. It's a fun thing to do."

The downside is that it's hard to put together the perfect holiday at home when that's what you do all day at work. "You kind of mess up your own Christmas because you're so busy," Fair says. "My daughter has complained about it." Adds Dunne, "Because I work here, I feel like I have to do my tree to perfection. I put up two trees as soon as I can at the beginning of December. I have three or four tablecloths that I change just during the season. You either like this kind of stuff or you don't."

And when January rolls around, the ones who do are just gearing up for the new-product introductions. "It's like an addiction with people. It is with me," says the Holiday Shoppe's Savage. She collects New England Village pieces, because she's from the region. "You say, 'I'm not going to buy another piece.' And then the water pieces come in. I love the water pieces -- I grew up on Long Island Sound in Connecticut. It's a reminder of home." She started with Paul Revere's Old North Church, a $48 investment. "My husband was in church work," she says.

Dunne talks of some collectors who've gone so far overboard they've had to drop the habit. "You think they're just porcelain houses."

Christmas on the Avenue, which relies heavily on the tourist trade, has its biggest slowdown in winter. The Holiday Shoppe, on the other hand, has its largest dip at the beginning of May, "when people are buying garden things," and in September, when back-to-school shopping carries the day, Dunne says. Still, no matter what the season, some people just have to have a Christmas fix.

"It was May 8 and I was out in the yard, and one of the girls called me from the store and said a woman bought a Chicago Bears-themed tree, all done up," Dunne recalls. "What's the rhyme and reason to that? I don't know. But when it's really hot, it's kind of neat to be in here. You don't get tired of it."

Fair enjoys unwrapping merchandise in July after ordering it in January. "A lot of times you forget what you sent for; it's a nice surprise. What makes your shop neat is finding the little things the big guys don't have," she adds, pointing out a tree full of glass ornaments crafted in Egypt from elegant perfume bottles. "Plus, people who like Christmas are just excited to find one of these stores open year-round."

Those people, invariably, are tourists. So what is it about a summer vacation that makes people stock up on Christmas ornaments? "I don't know why, but they do," Fair says. "The Department 56 stuff is just a mindless gift that some poor guy can buy for his wife."

And when the last gift has been opened and the tree's stashed in the trash, that poor guy's wife can chase the post-holiday blues away with a stroll through one of Chicago's perennial winter wonderlands. "A lot of people get a letdown after Christmas," Dunne says. "But on December 26, you can go in and start all over again with anticipation."

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