BROOKSVILLE — Save for the weed-filled flower beds in the once-pristine courtyard, it was like old times Friday at Rogers' Christmas House Village. The parking lots were packed, customers streamed in and out, the cash register jingled.
Nothing brings people in like a bargain.
The kickoff of a three-day liquidation sale attracted more than just hard-core shoppers, however. Some came to rekindle memories as the Brooksville institution entered a four-day death spiral after 37 years of making holidays happier for countless customers.
"It's breaking my heart," said Eilene Yudonnin, who has shopped at the Christmas House for 21 years. "Whenever I had a doctor's visit, I'd always stop in and buy something. It was one of those things I just had to do."
Yudonnin, who lives in Ocala, said that when she saw an ad saying that the storied business was closing, she decided to make one last trip.
George Rodriguez, a longtime employee who has run the Christmas House the past two years, is presiding over the final days of a business that used to draw thousands of shoppers and tourists in its prime.
When founder Margaret "Weenie" Rogers Ghiotto died in 2006, her survivors sold it to Donna Jones of Spring Hill, who filed for bankruptcy two years later. Rodriguez bought the inventory of the business for $10,000 in 2008, just as the national economy was staggering.
Looking for a financial ally, Rodriguez became partners in December with 38-year-old Matthew Senge, a felon. Rodriguez said he was aware of Senge's criminal past and his history of fraudulent schemes but went into business with him anyway. A month later, Senge was arrested on an Alabama warrant for theft by deception.
Senge had put all of the Christmas House electric accounts into his name, but never paid any electric bills. Nor did he notify Rodriguez that he had done so. Unable to pay the electric bills or to afford liability insurance for the five buildings, Rodriguez closed the business last month.
The remaining contents are being sold at a half-off clearance sale that continues today from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. A final auction of any remaining items will be start at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Shoppers on Friday didn't seem to have a tough time finding the holiday spirit on a 90-degree day. Christmas tunes played through speakers as customers carrying straw baskets milled about.
Brooksville businessman Pierre DesJardins, who has been helping Rodriguez sort through inventory the past couple of weeks, said shoppers began showing up two hours before the scheduled opening.
"They were ready to go," DesJardins said as he hunted through a storage room for a customer request. "I've never seen this many people here, ever."
Inside the powder blue room stocked with ornaments, Lorraine Spellman spent several minutes eyeing a $60 Swarovski Crystal star. But even at $30 she wasn't sure her husband would approve.
"If I don't get it now, I never will," she said. "He's going to be mad, but I've got to have it."
Customers stood 20 deep as busy cashiers rang up purchases ranging from huge Christmas wreaths to small stuffed animals. Outside, Frank Miller eyed a large red Santa sleigh that has been on display at the business for decades.
Miller, who works during the holiday season as a Santa, said he hoped to purchase the sleigh at the auction this week, if it's still available.
"It needs a little work, but otherwise, it's in pretty good shape," he said, running his hand over the smooth wood finish. "I could use this."
Inside the Storybook house, Julie Manion, 39, posed her 2-year-old daughter Bailey in front of a fading mural of cartoon characters. Manion, who first visited the Christmas House on an elementary school field trip, said she wanted to give her daughter a chance to visit the store one last time.
"I know she won't remember it, but that's okay," Manion. "People will still be talking about the Christmas House years from now."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 848-1435.