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Landmark puts city in Christmas mood

George Rodriguez unpacks a shipment of holiday figurines in the receiving room of the landmark Rogers’ Christmas House on Monday in Brooksville.

RON THOMPSON | Times

George Rodriguez unpacks a shipment of holiday figurines in the receiving room of the landmark Rogers’ Christmas House on Monday in Brooksville.

Barbara Hieb opened the door at Rogers' Christmas House Village, looked at the artificial, snow-white evergreen garlands, the creche on a mantle beneath the gilt-framed mirror, the ceramic figurines displayed in cotton-ball drifts — and said "Ahhhh!''

"This is Christmas! It's beautiful!'' said Hieb, 61, on Monday morning. "If you're not in the spirit when you come in, you will be by the time you leave. It just makes you want to sigh.''

So, to a certain segment of the population, the Christmas House is still exactly what the name suggests — the place where the holiday resides.

Its fans get excited, like young kids sitting on the lap of the bearded man at the mall. These are people who would love to make a pilgrimage to Santa's workshop, and they see the Christmas House as the closest approximation in the real world.

And if they don't come in the numbers they once did, they still come.

Back in the late 1970s, when Tricia Bechtelheimer, owner of the nearby Westover's Flowers and Gifts, worked part time at the Christmas House, it once drew 20,000 shoppers over Thanksgiving weekend.

New owner George Rodriguez, meanwhile, was encouraged by a total of 2,000 customers over Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Considering the dire economy and the Christmas House's struggles in recent years, he said, "We're doing okay.''

I think so.

See, it doesn't matter whether or not you fall under the spell of the Christmas House — whether you just adore that wooden music box that plays the songs of the Nutcracker Suite or think, as I tend to, that it would be easier to just download them from iTunes — the Christmas House is important.

It's the only reason that generations of tourists have ever heard of or come to Brooksville, making it part of the city's identity. It also still draws enough visitors to feed business to other stores and restaurants.

Not the way it used to, but it doesn't have to. The surrounding establishments, such as Westover's, Mallie Kyla's Cafe and Farmer John's Key West Cafe are stronger and more vital than a previous generation of enterprises that survived on Christmas House leftovers.

There are more shops a few blocks away in downtown Brooksville. The Christmas House isn't the only attraction in town, the way it was when, as Bechtelheimer said, customers drove there straight from Interstate 75 ''and then got right back on the interstate,'' but it's one of many. If it can build a steady business and not fall into decay that would be, as Rodriguez said, "okay.''

He assumed control last spring after a previous owner defaulted on her loan to buy it from the family of the former owner, Margaret Ghiotto.

Unable to get a bank loan to build inventory, Rodriguez has had to rely on private investors and store revenue. And though nearly two years have passed since the Christmas House briefly closed after a dispute between a former owner and two of her managers, Rodriguez still fields calls from people asking if it is open.

That's why it was good to see, on Monday, that the front parking lot just off E Jefferson Street was full for the first time in recent memory.

It was good to see a steady stream of customers milling through the showrooms. It was good to see Rodriguez down in the basement, unpacking boxes of new merchandise.

It was good to hear him say, after talking about all the difficulties of taking over the business, "I ain't quittin'."

Landmark puts city in Christmas mood 12/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 7:43pm]
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