BROOKSVILLE — Like a ghost of Christmas past, the landmark sits dark, vacant and haunting.
No garland adorns the rail. No twinkling lights dangle from the eaves. The faded paint is chipping, and the most colorful thing out front is a "for sale" sign.
One look and it's clear to most would-be shoppers that Christmas isn't coming this year to Rogers' Christmas House Village.
Despite the darkness, some decide to shuffle up the sidewalk anyway, only to have their last bit of hope dashed.
"They're looking in the windows, pulling on the doors," said Tricia Bechtelheimer, whose Westover's Flowers & Gifts is across the street from the shuttered business. "It's sad."
For the first time since Margaret "Weenie" Rogers Ghiotto opened the business in 1971, the Christmas House is dark during its namesake holiday season. The victim of mismanagement, a rotten economy and a lack of investors, the business closed in April, its last bit of merchandise liquidated at auction in May.
On Thursday, Rick and Barbara Sanchez pulled into the oak-shaded parking lot. With the day off, the couple decided to make the two-hour drive from Avon Park to visit the Christmas House.
"It's festive, and it's right before Christmas," Barbara Sanchez said. "I was excited to come see all the trees."
They got out of their car and squinted with puzzlement. This wasn't the bastion of Christmas cheer they'd visited at least three times in the last eight years. Mrs. Sanchez remembered the last time, about four years ago, when the place was "loaded" with the kind of inventory that made visitors ooh and aah and open their wallets.
The Sanchezes asked the same question all of the unsuspecting visitors do: What happened?
The short version: After Mrs. Ghiotto died in 2006, her family sold the business to Donna Jones for $1.5 million. Jones, of Spring Hill, described it as a dream come true, but the venture ended two years later in the nightmare of bankruptcy.
Longtime manager George 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 last December with 38-year-old Matthew Senge, a felon. A month later, Senge was arrested on an Alabama warrant for theft by deception.
Rodriguez found a potential investor, but the South Florida businessman bailed after deciding it would cost too much to return the place to its former glory.
Visitors can't be faulted for coming.
Type "Rogers' Christmas House" into Google on the Internet and the top result is a map to S Saxon Avenue and a link to rousing customer reviews.
"Just when you think you have seen it all, Rogers' Christmas House has something new," one proclaims.
Apparently, at least one billboard is still up on Interstate 75.
"I had a lady tell me she saw one yesterday," Bechtelheimer said. "She was irate."
But many customers are like the Sanchezes. They don't consult the Web. They don't need to. They just expect the Christmas Village to be there.
Seeking answers, they walk across the parking lot, where Bechtelheimer's business shares a historic home with the Paper Porch gift shop and Mallie Kyla's Cafe.
Most are disappointed, some sad and some downright heartbroken. One woman who had visited for years brought her 5-year-old daughter from Ocala for what she hoped would be the first of a new generation's tradition.
"I thought she was going to cry," Bechtelheimer said.
The woman, not the girl.
While foot traffic is definitely down due to the closing, the holiday season has still been good for Bechtelheimer and Paper Porch owner Ellen Lovelock. With a front-row seat to the uncertainty across the street, both started carrying more holiday inventory in the last couple of years.
"That's worked out," Lovelock said. "And we've got a great local following. Rogers' always provided the gravy, but without the locals we wouldn't be here."
For Mallie Kyla's owner Larie DeWitt Hensley, the Christmas House's demise is not just a business consideration. It's personal.
Raised in Brooksville, Hensley saw the evolution of Mrs. Ghiotto's venture from its origins as a Christmas-themed gift shop at the back of her father's downtown department store.
"It's just a shame," Hensley said. "She was a woman ahead of her time, and she did so much for Brooksville."
It is sad, said Weiland Rogers, Mrs. Ghiotto's nephew, who helped run the business until shortly after the family sold it. But the mourning process started a few years ago.
"It was tough to see it operated the way it had been, quite honestly," Rogers said. "It's for sale, and we hope someone would be interested in bringing it back in some form, but it's not something I'm in a position to do."
Rogers has listed the five houses on the 1.25-acre property at $600,000, down from $750,000 several months ago.
George Rodriguez is still adjusting to life after the Christmas Village. This time of year, he normally would be working seven days a week. Now he is spending the holiday at home with his wife, Diana, who used to work alongside him.
"I still miss the daily routine," he said. "I guess I'll get used to it eventually."
What would he say to the visitors who leave disappointed?
"If I ever find any financing and I'm able to do it, I'll do it," Rodriguez said. "I still think it could work.
"I would just tell them I don't see anything happening in the near future."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.