BROOKSVILLE — Holding up the paperwork that would allow him to regain his family's business, George Weiland Rogers, the nephew of Rogers' Christmas House Village founder Margaret Rogers Ghiotto, smiled at those gathered around him inside the Hernando County Courthouse.
"I'm happy," Rogers said. "I think I got myself a good deal."
Rogers' lone $100 bid at Tuesday's court-ordered public auction enabled his family to take over the historic property that houses one of Brooksville's landmark attractions. Though it marked the end of a protracted legal battle with former owner Donna R. Jones, the sale hardly signaled the end of the story.
"What happens from here depends on a lot of things," Rogers said. "People see (the business) as an institution around here. I'd just hate to see it fail."
Jones purchased the Christmas House from the Rogers family for $1.5-million in May 2006. Last October, she filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, saying she had $1.2-million worth of debt. Jones lost ownership of the business in April after declaring she was unable to meet the court's payment deadlines.
Jones, who was unavailable for comment Tuesday, told the Hernando Times in August that the business had been struggling for some time. She said there was no money to buy inventory for the Christmas season.
"I'm not ready to throw in the towel, but unless I can find some help, there may not be any other choice," she said then.
Rogers' Christmas House Village got its humble start in the late 1960s inside the Brooksville department store owned by the father of Margaret "Weenie" Rogers Ghiotto. When the department store closed in 1970, Ghiotto moved her small business to a cottage off Jefferson Street in south Brooksville.
Over the next three decades Ghiotto saw the year-round Christmas store grow and expand into a landmark business that attracted thousands of visitors each year. Many came by for the hospitality alone, said store manager George Rodriguez, who has worked at the store for more than 30 years.
"It was always more than just a place to buy Christmas ornaments," Rodriguez said. "Weenie made it a happy place where people could just wander around and enjoy themselves with no pressure to buy anything."
Rodriguez said Tuesday he would love to help restore some of the old magic. He says he has been negotiating with George Rogers to come up with a plan to allow him to buy the business.
Rodriguez says the sale of the store back to the Margaret Rogers Ghiotto Trust will enable the doors to stay open. The store's 19 employees will remain on the job.
Rogers said that the store's future may depend on whether anyone is willing to take such a gamble during pressing economic times.
"You have to be willing to tough it out for a while," he said.
Brooksville City Council member Lara Bradburn, a longtime friend of Margaret Ghiotto, said she felt optimistic that with a progressive owner, the Christmas House could once again be the toast of Brooksville and Hernando County.
"It's one of a kind," Bradburn said. "People have been coming to it for more than 30 years because there's nothing else even remotely like it anywhere."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 848-1435.