Christmas never ends at the Christmas Attic

November 18, 2011

At the Christmas Attic, a year-round Christmas store along a cobblestone street in Old Town Alexandria, the managers carry business cards stamped with this on the back: “YES, I KNOW I HAVE GLITTER ON MY FACE.” The glitter stamps spare them from repeating themselves as customers with good intentions point out stray glitter that has fallen on their cheeks, on their foreheads, in their curls — flyaway flecks of glitter lit up like diamonds under a tangle of blinking Christmas lights strung from the store’s ceiling.

Glitter is part of the job in this year-round Christmas store. It falls like fairy dust from the merchandise onto rugs, aisles, stairways, lace-covered tables, cash registers, and covers the angels, snow globes, holiday books, antique clocks. And employees.

“I’m always conscious of it,” says Diana Bridger, 52, assistant store manager, with a twinkle in her eye (or is that glitter?). She is standing on the second floor near a Christmas tree. “But I wonder whether people are saying silently, ‘Isn’t she a little old for glitter make-up?’ ”

Inside the Christmas Attic, time is stuck like a record needle in the groove of a corny old Christmas album, skipping beats, then starting over again. The mood, too, is in a time warp; a strange happiness permeates the place, as owner and clerks attempt to help customers match their memories of Christmases past with crushed velvet, fragile glass ornaments and hand-painted nutcrackers.

On a recent sunny afternoon, the store’s owner, Cheri Hennessy, 52, dodges hanging ornaments, tinsel and angels as she hurries around a fluffy white Christmas tree.

“Diana! Hold this,” Hennessy calls out, extending a five-foot branch of silver pine cones — covered in glitter. Her pale blue eyes flash worry. Fulfilling nostalgic wishes is a tall order.

“Why am I holding this?” asks Bridger, standing near stacks of old-fashioned red, blue and green Christmas lights.

“Because I don’t know where else to put it,” says Hennessy, as she turns to move a display.

Space is precious here. The store is packed like a jar of Christmas jam. There are rows of tabletop-size wooden carolers with mouths frozen in perpetual “Oooos,” frosted snowmen, flying peacock ornaments and angels on high. Hand-crank music boxes spin, Scrooge figurines brood, a choir of “boy with bells” sings.

If you are standing still, you are bound to be in somebody’s way.

“We call it the Christmas Attic dance,” says Hennessy, in a red sweater and apron. She deftly positions a rack of holiday guest towels that capture the store’s giddy cheer.

“Let’s eat, drink and bond over shattered holiday expectations,” reads the red stitching on one towel.

“Let’s eat, drink and pray our butts fit in our velvet pants,” reads another.

“This is my favorite one,” Hennessy says.

The towel on the lower rack reads:

“There are no Freaking Elves.”

* * *

Time in the Christmas Attic is measured not in years, but in Christmases. “As in, I have been here 39 Christmases,” says Hennessy, who started working at the store at a card table, “guarding the money box,” when she was a pre-teen.

A new clerk, Courtney Hack, a teacher by day, says she has been here three days. She applied because she simply loves Christmas. The store reminds her of her mother, who lives in Chicago, she says. It brings tears of joy to her eyes.

Bridger, who is helping her tie red ribbons on Bavarian pewter ornaments, jokingly corrects the new clerk: “You would say, ‘I have been here zero Christmases.’ ”

“I have been here zero Christmases,” the clerk repeats.

This year, the Christmas Attic has been here 40 Christmases. Hennessy’s father and business partner opened it in 1971 as an interior design and picture framing store.

“When Dad came in, it was just dirt floors,” Hennessy says.

“We called it the Picture Place,” recalls her father, Henry Hobbs, 79, from his home in Greensboro, Ga.

The abandoned tobacco warehouse on South Union Street wasn’t much to look at — one electric light on each floor. No water. No heat.

They patched floors, removed rotten beams, polished what was left of the original windows and opened the interior design shop.

“We thought we were doing great,” Hobbs said. “On Saturdays, we would get literally 400 to 500 people walking through there. But nobody bought anything. It was the most horrifying thing in the world.”

That’s when Cheri’s mother, Nita Whitesel, saw a chance to realize her dream: Why not use part of the space to open a Christmas shop?

In a way, Whitesel, who died five years ago, embodied the yearning of the store’s customers, who enter in search of merrier times.

“I think her childhood was not as happy as it might have been,” Hobbs said. “Almost every child has portions of their childhood that are not very happy. For her, it got better with Christmas. She loved the pageantry.”

Nita Whitesel’s passion for Christmas infused the house when Hennessy was growing up. “We had a tree upstairs. Then, we would go down to grandmother’s. She lived in the basement. And we would have another Christmas. I assumed everybody did it that way.”

Three months after the family’s business opened, Nita Whitesel suggested selling Christmas ornaments temporarily on the second floor. “We took a corner of the floor space, enclosed it and made a room out of it,” Hobbs said. “The other half we rented to an interior designer.”

People would come up the stairs and go directly to the Christmas shop. Sometimes, there were lines out the door. “It became pretty popular in the first year.” By the second year, “the interior designer had gone out of business. We said, ‘Let’s take the other half and turn it into Christmas.’ After the fourth or fifth year, it took over the whole shop.”

Hobbs changed the name from Picture Place to Christmas Attic.

And so it came to pass that, through economic recessions and the discordant heat of July, the Christmas spirit lived on in Old Town.

* * *

On the first floor, a Christmas train rolls around a track that Hobbs hung from the ceiling 40 years ago. The train is so quiet it seems to be whispering. It makes random stops as it pleases.

“It has issues,” Hennessy says.

She is standing at the register next to doll houses and hot-selling wine labeled: “Mommy’s Time Out,” gift merchandise the store carries to boost sales. She rings up a customer.

Sometimes, Christmas makes her misty. Even now, with unemployment hovering at 9 percent, people hold on to Christmas.

“The stock market can be crashing. They may be having a hard time paying bills. They may say, ‘My husband lost his job a year ago. Our neighbors are moving because they can’t afford their house,’ ’’ Hennessy says. “ ‘We can’t control any of that. But we can control the time we spend with our family. Maybe the presents won’t be $200 presents. Maybe they will be $15 presents. But we are together. If we can make Christmas really perfect, we will have memories all year long.’ ”

As the world gets more frantic, people cling more desperately to traditions. Hennessy, who took over the family business after her mother died and her sister moved with her husband to Cairo for work, sees the store as helping to fill a basic human desire. Which is: “We are put here to fill the hole inside of us. We need people. That is what the holidays are for me. Getting together with people you care about and matter in your life.”

People ask her all the time: Why in the world would a Christmas store be open year-round? How can you stay in business?

“The smart aleck in me asks, ‘Do you think a boat company would go out of business just because it is off season?’ ”

The other answer is that successful Christmas businesses operate in areas with tourist appeal. “When people are on vacation — it’s like Disney World; they want to escape, and our store is escape. That is what Christmas stores offer: escapism.”

The other question, usually asked by men who have been dragged into the store by a girlfriend or wife, is: Don’t you get sick of Christmas?

Hennessy, who is married with three children and lives in Fairfax Station, is honest: sometimes.

During the Christmas season, “I drink a glass of wine and stare at my Christmas ornaments, just like everybody else. I watch my special videos, and I wrap my presents. But I have to tell you, I do take my tree down pretty quick after Christmas. I’m done.”

But that’s at home. In the store, her job is to help customers return to a place that now seems perfect, a time before everything fell apart or life readjusted the lighting.

* * *

Vincent Gibbs, 71, a retired English and humanities teacher who lives in Germantown, has four boxes of Christmas lights on hold at the Christmas Attic. Gibbs is not a flamboyant man. He is soft-spoken. He never married. His Christmas collection is enormous.

“Christmas is my thing,” he says. “I have been collecting antique ornaments since I was a little kid. When I was teaching, I didn’t go there” — to the Christmas Attic — “until September. Now that I am retired, I go year-round.”

“My holding list is ongoing. I will pick up things and pay for it. Then, I will see something else. ‘Can you hold it for me?’ By December, I have gotten it all.”

But right after Christmas, he is back in the store to see what is left.

“They are kind in ordering things for me that I need.” He corrects himself. “Things that I want, because I don’t need anything.”

Gibbs grew up in Kentucky, an only child in a family that adored Christmas pageantry. “We waited all year for the day to come.”

His family would clean the whole house, pushing the furniture into the center of the room and scrubbing the baseboards. Then Gibbs would take the pennies he had saved all year, and he and his mom would go across the river to Cincinnati to “The Bottom,” where the railroad cars came loaded with Christmas trees.

Years passed, and Gibbs moved to Washington. He used to return to Kentucky each year for Christmas. “When I got my apartment in Washington, I never did much for Christmas. But Mom said, ‘Why don’t you have a little tree there or something, so when you go back to Washington, you won’t be so lonely?’ ”

After that, for years, he would decorate his apartment, have a Christmas party, then travel to Kentucky. His father died in 1966. In 1991, his mother died. Then his uncle, who loved Christmas so much, died on Christmas Day. “Now, I have no family to speak of,” Gibbs said.

When Gibbs finished teaching, he bought a house on a quiet street in Germantown, big enough for his Christmas decorations. “I think it is a way of staying young, a way of keeping wonderful memories alive and fresh,” he says. “It’s a way of keeping your loved ones who are gone closer to your heart.”

In his dining room, he has a 100-year-old Nativity scene that belonged to the church his mother and family attended. After the church burned down, Gibbs called and asked, “Did the Nativity survive?” It did. One day, the priest called and told Gibbs he could come pick it up.

“I rented a car and truck, and on the way home, a kid ran a red light and all the statues were damaged,” he said. “Fortunately, they had insurance, and they were able to be restored.”

Some of the pieces are as tall as Gibbs. The ones that were broken have been put back together, so well that you can hardly tell they were once shattered. They’re perfect, unless you look very, very closely.

* * *

Every corner of the Christmas Attic seems home to someone’s Christmas tradition. On the counter — next to the hand-painted baby angels, so tiny the price tags are bigger than their heads — a bowl of glass-blown pickle ornaments.

“Did you know about the pickle traditions?” Hennessy asks.

No.

“Well, in Germany, they hide a pickle on the Christmas tree, and the child who finds the pickle wins a prize. For the longest time, I thought it was a made-up story, but a customer came in last year and told us it was true.”

“Betsy,” she calls to Betsy Husser, the store’s manager, “why is it a pickle they hide?”

“I have no idea,” Husser says. “I know that the pickle is a big thing on people’s list.”

(A spokeswoman at the German Embassy says the pickle is not a German tradition. But Christmas is not about harsh realities, is it?) It’s a Monday, and a woman is at the counter with her son. The boy, whose head keeps hitting the ornaments dangling from the ceiling, rolls his eyes. The woman has a specific request: gumball ornaments.

“Oh, yeah, I know exactly what you mean,” says Hennessy, in her apron. And she is off to the third floor. Up one flight of worn wooden stairs. Up another flight. (Who needs to go to the gym?)

She flips through catalogues. And calls down stairs on the intercom to ask Bridger to take the customer’s name and tell her she will order the gumballs. They might not come in this year. Might be next year. But the wish will be fulfilled.

Later, a tour group of women from Indiana fills the store. Pat Scott, from Princeton, Ind., is looking at the nutcrackers. She has traveled all over the United States searching for year-round Christmas shops.

Scott, 58, and her sisters have been decorating their parents’ house for years. They started back when their mother had a dinner for the ladies at the church. Their father said,“ ‘This is better than Homes and Gardens,’ ” Scott says. “So, it became a tradition.”

Gingerbread for the dining room and kitchen. Angels for the living room. “Snowmen for mom’s bedroom. Daddy has nutcrackers in his bedroom,” Scott says.

She is wearing a baby blue sweater, and her hair falls in tight gray curls. She is a bus driver. But for years she worked at Woolco, a discount department store.

“After Thanksgiving, I can’t stand to be in a store,” Scott says. “I can’t stand the hustle and bustle. Sometimes, people get rude because they are desperate.”

Desperation is an enemy of perfection.

Working at a Christmas tree, Husser, 63, digs into a box that has just arrived and finds a Santa disguise: a nose, black-rimmed glasses and a white beard. She digs into another box and finds a red Santa hat. But wait, it has a button. She puts the hat on and pushes the button, and the hat flops back and forth and sings “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

“It’s alive. It’s alive!” says Maurisa Potts, 38, the store’s marketing person.

They are not far from a sign that says: “Masquerading as a normal person day to day is exhausting.” Yes, says Bridger, that sign is for sale.

Bridger, who began working here 10 Christmases ago as “Christmas Fluff,” or extra staff, is buzzing around the store. “I tell everybody this is a very physical job. You would think we would all be skinny.”

She explains that customers are particular about their ornaments. “Santa faces,” for example, “are very personal. Let me show you a good Santa face first.” She searches a Christmas tree decorated with Santas. “Look, he has cheerful eyes. But look at this guy!” She plucks another Santa with narrow eyes. “He looks like he has on guyliner. He has a nostalgic shape. But I think his eyes will be his downfall.”

On the front counter is a stack of cigar ornaments. “People will say, ‘Who would want a cigar on their Christmas tree?’ But I think people would be very pleased to find something as a gift for a man.”

“How much is that?” a woman in red lipstick asks just then, pointing at the cigar ornament.

“Seven ninety-nine.”

“I’m going to take that,” says Joan Argiro, who stops by weekly after getting her now-silver hair styled at the hairdresser on the street.

Argiro has been coming to the Attic for years. “Since her hair was black,” says her husband, Vincent Argiro, here with her.

The store brings back Christmas memories. In 1966, Joan Argiro thought she would get engaged on Christmas. “I was very disappointed I didn’t get a ring. But on New Year’s Eve, we had a big family party, and I got a box, which was very unusual, because on New Year’s Eve everybody brings champagne. When I opened the box, there was a big box and inside many, many boxes.”

Inside the last box was an engagement ring.

“I got so excited, I flipped my wig. And no one in the family had seen me without a hair piece. We got so excited, he forgot to ask me to marry him.”

They did marry in 1967. “And we have been very happy, too,” Vincent Argiro says.

* * *

Hennessy has a story of her own to tell. The Christmas Attic is all about stories.

The other day, an old woman dressed in all gray arrived, Hennessy says. The woman kept saying, “Honey, I need satin balls.” Hennessy told her the store doesn’t stock them anymore. But the woman refused to accept that and continued her story. “Let me tell you why I need satin balls. You see, my children, they expect them. ...

“When you see the old lady coming in looking for ornaments,” Hennessy says later, “what she really needs is for somebody to be kind and talk to her and say, ‘I really care about you as a human being.’ ”

So, Hennessy listened to the woman talk about red satin balls. And even though she is not sure she can find them anymore, she will look one more time — until she has gone through every last catalogue. Not necessarily cost-efficient, but human. There are not many orders that can’t be filled. Besides, as the sign in the store says, “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy marshmallows, which are kinda the same thing.”

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