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Last of Rogers' Christmas House Village is auctioned

BROOKSVILLE — In the end, everything that must go went.

Several boxes of silver-ringed plates, cups and saucers and other holiday items sold together for a mere $6. A snow-trimmed Christmas tree fetched $17.50, a mockery of its original $325 price.

Even the employees' break room, at least the items in it, was up for grabs. Someone got it for $7.

George Rodriguez stood silently Wednesday morning and watched auctioneer Robert Dudley call for bids and unceremoniously dispatch the last vestiges of the iconic Rogers' Christmas House Village.

"I really don't have any regrets. I've learned to accept it. Tomorrow is a new day with new opportunities," said Rodriguez, who has worked at the landmark for all of its 37 years, operating it himself since 2008.

The auction was a far cry from the halcyon days of the 1980s, when Christmas House founder Margaret "Weenie'' Ghiotto oversaw a business capable of drawing a half-million visitors a year to Brooksville.

The Christmas House offered a great working environment, even for part-time employees, remembered Brooksville business owner Tricia Bechtelheimer, who worked there in high school and on summer breaks from college.

Bechtelheimer, who stopped by the auction briefly Wednesday, remembers unpacking merchandise, pricing and stocking it from 3:30 to 10 every night during the runup to Christmas.

"It was always busy," she said. "When you were there, you were working. We never had any down time.''

But even before Ghiotto's death in 2006, there were signs that the Christmas House was declining. People wanting Christmas items could get them cheaper on the Internet and through big box stores such as Walmart and Target.

Rodriguez said despite the recent economic downturn, he felt the business was still capable of turning a decent profit. He wouldn't have stayed so long if it didn't.

"I always say that if I had the money I would reopen it tomorrow," Rodriguez said. "It still had a good reputation."

Chris Dudley, co-owner of Dudley's Auction & Estate, said that many of the 120 buyers registered for the auction were from out of town.

"We've gotten calls from all over the state," she said. "People are interested anytime a business like this is liquidating because they know there are some good bargains to be found."

Ed and Maureen Beyer, who run booths at several area flea markets, said they were after items they could sell fast. Both eyed a shelf of small animal figurines they hoped they could pick up for 50 cents each.

"It's worth a gamble," Ed Beyer said. "Kids like these kinds of things."

Inside the Storyland Room, whose walls still sported images of fairy tale characters, Carleen Heath and Lori Hill dismantled the plastic giant from Jack and the Beanstalk fame that once loomed over visitors.

Heath said she bought the giant, plus other figures from the Wizard of Oz story, because she liked their whimsical look.

The Magnolia House, which displayed some of the Christmas House's most elegant furnishings, was nearly bare by the time Dudley and his staff started calling for bids.

Brooksville resident Julie Manion and her 2-year-old daughter Bailey stood in the courtyard.

She had gone to the clearance sale on Sunday but had to leave before she could pay for a couple of red and green baskets that shoppers used to carry around the store.

"I just want a keepsake for my daughter," she said. "I want her to remember how wonderful the Christmas House was."

On her way to preview some items up for auction, Charla Breen paused to read some of the dozens of names that were etched 20 years ago in the concrete path that winds through the courtyard.

She noticed the crudely drawn heart inside of which Brooksville lawyer Bill Eppley and his wife, Kathy, had professed their love in 1980.

That same day so many years ago, Jim and Sue Biggart and their three children had imprinted their names into the walkway.

Breen, who had never visited the Christmas House, said it made her wish she had come sooner.

"This must have been a fun place to go," she said.

Times staff writer Dan Dewitt contributed to this report. Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 848-1435.

Donna and Dean Fahr of Inglis pause next to a giant Santa Claus in Rogers’ Christmas House Village on Wednesday. “This is an icon here, it should’ve been saved,” Donna Fahr said.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Donna and Dean Fahr of Inglis pause next to a giant Santa Claus in Rogers’ Christmas House Village on Wednesday. “This is an icon here, it should’ve been saved,” Donna Fahr said.

Last of Rogers' Christmas House Village is auctioned 05/26/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 27, 2010 11:40am]
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