CLEARWATER — Walk into Robert's Christmas Wonderland, and you get showered with yuletide cheer. Between the scented candles, the piped-in music and the thousands of ornaments and figurines for sale, this store looks, sounds and smells like Christmas.
But now the shop is dealing with its own personal Grinch. A case of mistaken identity is making things complicated for the longtime business at 2951 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd.
For decades, customers confused this store with a similar one, Rogers' Christmas House Village in Brooksville.
"Our names were so close that many people thought we were the same stores at different locations," said the Clearwater shop's owner, Bob Frank. "Throughout the years, folks would ask about our 'other store.' "
And that was never really a problem — until the iconic Brooksville store closed down. The last of its merchandise got auctioned off last month. Since Rogers' Christmas House was something of a local landmark, its demise got plenty of publicity.
Now dozens of people a week are calling Robert's Christmas Wonderland and asking, What's your last day? When's your going-out-of-business sale?
The thing is, the store is not closing. But its owners wonder how many potential customers think it already has.
'The craziest idea'
Bob and Rita Frank opened their first Christmas store in Pinellas Park in 1973 — one year after Rogers' Christmas House opened in Brooksville.
The Franks bought a larger Clearwater store in 1989 and have since closed their Pinellas Park location.
The couple had moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1972, giving up jobs as a high school teacher and a social worker in the Bronx to head for warmer climes. Bob Frank was unemployed for months when his father suggested opening a Christmas store.
"I said that's the craziest idea I ever heard," Frank recalled.
Nearly four decades later, they have no intention of ever closing. It's a family business, and they have groomed their son, Josh, to take it over.
Up north in Brooksville, Rogers' Christmas House Village grew into a famous destination for Christmas lovers. At one point, it had 18 billboards, starting with a really big one on Interstate 75 near the Georgia state line. But it fell on hard times after its founder, Margaret "Weenie" Rogers Ghiotto, died in 2006.
"A Christmas store needs a driving force," Frank said. "So many Christmas stores around the state have closed, even some of the big ones."
The Clearwater store stays open year-round, but the staff basically spends the first eight months of the year getting ready for the last four months.
They're currently building elaborate Christmas villages stocked with miniature buildings that will be on display during the holiday season. All the buttons that turn on various electronic gizmos in the displays are set down low, "at kid height," Frank said.
The Internet age and the lousy economy have been brutal for Christmas stores. But the Franks have strived to foster a personal connection with their customers and to build their store into a Clearwater tradition.
Locals have been known to come in and shoot family photos for their Christmas cards in the store's big room full of artificial Christmas trees.
"We have customers who used to be the children of our customers," Frank said, "And we're getting to the point where we'll be dealing with their children."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.