The traditional, Freudian view is that collecting represents an anal retentive bent. That’s kind of scoffed at these days; it’s a colorful way of classifying people. [A more contemporary view is] that collecting satisfies the need for closure that many people have. Some people don’t need completion; they never finish anything. But those who really need to finish [things] are the ones that are more likely to collect.
–Fred Bryant, professor of psychology, Loyola University, from an interview with the author
It’s a bright July day in Norwood Park. The tree-lined streets, newly cleaned, give way to smallish lawns and freshly repaired sidewalks; the stucco or brick houses are neat and orderly. On Imlay Street, a few people are out trimming their bushes. One of the neatest houses on the block is a two-story frame house with brown aluminum siding. A wooden sign next to the front door identifies the owners with pride: The Hennesseys.
Ron Hennessey is a facilities/office service manager at W.W. Grainger, a wholesaler of industrial products; Geri is a senior accounts receivable specialist for the same company. On such a nice day you might expect the Hennesseys to be trimming their rosebushes, tending to the impatiens and marigolds that fill the flowerpots dotting the yard, or mowing the lawn. But the yard is empty. In summer, Ron and Geri go to ground. They’ve got to–in order to have the collection ready.
“Certainly we’ll need to have it finished by Thanksgiving,” Ron says. Geri adds, “We are going to have a major house walk in January with the club from Woodstock–they’re going to be renting a bus. We have to really redesign and do something different. I know Ron wants to put running water in the North Pole.”
For almost ten years it’s been this way: getting ready for Christmas at the Hennesseys’ begins in June or July, August at the latest.
Ron Hennessey opens the door on the side of the house, which leads into a carpeted sunporch. Geri is standing in front of a small table at the opposite end of the room. When she steps away from it, a city in miniature is revealed: the table, skirted in royal blue velvet, holds a whole neighborhood full of tiny ceramic buildings–a dress shop, a pub, a beauty salon–on two levels, surrounded by roads, cars, buses, trees, street lamps, vendors, and people, all rendered in precise detail. Only the people seem out of proportion, scaled too large to actually fit into the buildings; that’s so they can be easily picked up and moved around.
Geri and Ron step over a threshold into the main house. Everywhere there are more displays, some large, some small. Interspersed with the miniature towns is evidence of Geri’s other collections: multiple cookie jars–here a pig, there a cow–as well as angels of every celestial shape and size. Approaching the basement, Ron and Geri turn and smile. “Ready?” Ron asks, and leads the way.
Down a short, carpeted hallway to the right is the centerpiece of the collection: the North Pole Village. Blue fabric embellished with white fluffy clouds made of cotton batting is draped along the wall for a good 12 feet, extending down to the winter wonderland that Ron and Geri have worked on for so long: a 3-by-15-foot display covered in Styrofoam “snow” and edged in more dark blue table skirting. Fabric icicles drip from the table’s edge. Ron quickly steps forward and offers a tour.
“The way it’s designed,” he explains, “it runs from Santa’s area to the south. Now that includes his house, his workshop, his reindeer barn, the elves’ bunkhouse, and all those kinds of things. We’ve tried to set it up where Santa would have his forests for cutting trees, that’s to the left. There you’ve also got your lookout mountain and then”–here Ron gestures toward the center of the huge diorama–“you work your way into the town with pieces like the tin soldier shop or the candy cane or snow-making factory. That’s surrounded by things like the Crayola crayon school for elf children.”
Then Ron steps over to the wall and makes magic: with the flip of a switch, the North Pole begins to glow. The fabric sky lights up with stars, the Styrofoam snow glistens, and the elves appear to be skiing down a moonlit hill. Every collector of Department 56, the company that makes the North Pole and Christmas in the City series and a dozen others, knows it’s the lighting that makes the overall effect so distinctive. Along with tiny clear plastic icicles and microscopic doorbells and knobs, each little building comes equipped with a lightbulb and a pristine white cord. The structures can be plugged into one another like strands of Christmas lights, allowing them to turn on simultaneously. It’s this feature–along with the buildings’ small size–that has earned Department 56 the nickname “Lit Town.”
Ron calculates the number of lights glowing behind him. “In the actual village itself you have one light for each building, that’s maybe 30 to 40 right there, then there are five or six sets of streetlights, that’s 25 or 30 streetlights. Then there are the lights that I use for the star effect behind the backdrop. That’s at least three sets of Christmas lights and I’m guessing that there are at least 100 to 150 lights per set–probably in the area of 300 lights behind it.” He gazes at the display for a moment. “All I know is that it took a long, long time to put it up.”
“I always loved the windows at Marshall Field’s,” says Geri. “There’s something about those little lights.”
The Hennesseys’ basement display changes a little each year. “I get a lot of enjoyment about the construction, the designing of it,” says Ron. “I like seeing it come from a flat surface to the finished result. Trying to decide how to lay the pieces out–OK, I want to put some mountains over here, I want to do some water over here. Geri will tell me what she wants and I’ll say, ‘OK, let me get the hot knife out and the Styrofoam.’ I’ll build something up and we’ll take some pictures and she’ll say ‘This is what I’d like to do’ and take her marker out and start drawing. I get a lot of satisfaction from that. I like to tinker with electrical stuff, and I built model cars when I was younger. This is definitely an extension of that.”
“Even after 30 years of being together you sorta do your own thing,” says Geri. “We don’t need to be with each other 100 percent of the time; we have our own people. I don’t bowl anymore because of my back, and he doesn’t come out with my girlfriends and I. So this is the thing that we do together. We’re not painting the house or going shopping–we’re working on something that we’ve created together.”
This year Geri and Ron have four new buildings to wedge into the tightly packed display. Ron has yet to figure out how and where he’s going to put in the running water, which will look like a roaring, icy river when he’s finished. With his white hair and goatee and her sweet demeanor, Ron and Geri Hennessey loom over their North Pole looking like younger, thinner, neater versions of their village’s resident celebrities: Santa and Mrs. Claus.
“I’ve always loved Christmas,” Geri says.
[There have been many] developmental studies on why children begin collecting. It’s almost a universal process that children at a certain age go through. It’s believed that it represents an attempt to impose order on the world. Collecting [helps] distinguish the similar from the dissimilar. It also helps them to gain a sense of control over the things around them, because if they can have them and possess them and hold them and organize them then that’s exerting a kind of control over the world. That’s very rewarding.
What happens in the normal course of development is that most people give up this collecting phase in adolescence. Relations with people replace relations with objects.
Irene and Joseph Ehle (pronounced “ale”) were German. Joseph owned George’s Market, a butcher shop in Edison Park. Geri, their only child, born in 1950, remembers, “My dad came home on Saturday nights with everything that was left on the counter.” Irene worked as a hairdresser from home. Geri recalls a wonderful childhood. “I baby-sat, I had a part-time job; I worked at Kresge. Christmas I got what I wanted. In a sense I was spoiled, but not with values. My dad worked hard as a butcher all his life. He wasn’t like a stockbroker–he worked six days a week. I appreciated everything my parents gave me.”
Geri still has the Smokey Bear that her father brought to the hospital when she was born. It formed the basis of her first collection. “I’ve always loved stuffed animals. I love to pose them and look at them–they cheer me up. My dad would buy me stuffed animals for Easter. I got an Easter basket from my father every year until he died.” Her father also had a large stamp collection, which Geri helped him with “from the time that I could read. We spent nights going over the stamps and putting them into books. Dad’s collection was pretty extensive.” She still has it.
Ron, one of five children, was born and raised in Chicago. His father, Jerry, was “involved in the trucking industry his entire life, management-type functions for his entire career,” says Ron. His mother, Dorothy, was a homemaker. Ron describes his years growing up as “pleasant and average.” The family moved around the city, “slowly migrating down Montrose Avenue. My mother never drove; that was a good east-west street for her. My older brothers Pat and Chuck were pretty much gone by the time I was coming up. There’s about seven years between me and my older sister Diane and six years between me and my little sister, Kathy.” Ron went to a couple of Catholic schools and graduated from Steinmetz. He did “a lot of the usual things that kids do–I was into baseball, hockey, different sports. I was an altar boy for a short period of time. Looking back at my school yearbooks I didn’t have any major ambitions; I really just wanted to be in business.” Ron did have a passion, though–bowling–and it would lead him to Geri.
Geri, who describes herself as “a child of the 60s,” got her bachelor’s degree from Winona photography school, which then had a branch in Mount Prospect. “I wanted to be a commercial photographer. I did a lot of animals and I just never got into anything; one of these days maybe. I was on the school newspaper; I was the editor. I had creative interests. I loved writing.” She also liked hanging out with her girlfriends, driving them around in a 1970 Pontiac LeMans–blue with a white vinyl top–that she bought with earnings from a secretarial job. “I paid cash for it, $3,300. I’ll never forget that.”
Meanwhile, Ron, who had finished high school in 1969, was working as a mechanic on bowling machines. “I did that for about five years–I worked at Lawrence and Western, Empire Bowl, Bentler Bowl. To this day I will occasionally do some work on the machines.” Ron had seen Geri out bowling on several occasions, and the two knew each other casually. One night Geri had a problem with the LeMans, Ron says. “Some of the other people had left and I said, ‘If you want, I can follow you with my car to make sure that you get home safely.’ I didn’t think much of it at the time, but eventually we started going out.” That was in 1970.
In 1972 Ron’s boss decided to move to Florida and asked him to take over the business. But, Ron remembers, “I didn’t think I was ready for it.” Instead he got a job at Grainger, where Geri had taken a job the previous year. In 1973 Geri Ehle became Mrs. Ron Hennessey. “I was at his house with his mother and his sister,” Geri says, “and my ring was in a hardware store bag. Ron had to buy his mother some lightbulbs, and he gave me the bag and said, ‘There’s something else in there,’ and I dug in and found the ring. That’s my Mister Romantic Husband!” Geri received a cookie jar from her father at her wedding shower. “Every year from then on my father bought me one for my birthday, and it always had a $100 bill in it.” Ron and Geri honeymooned at Disney World, which had just opened.
During the first years of their marriage they spent the bulk of their free time bowling and traveling to bowling tournaments. “After 30 years of bowling I always average 200 a game,” says Ron. “I’ve had a 300 game and a 700 series.” During the bowling years Geri added to her burgeoning cookie jar collection and attended beauty school; she and her mother planned to open a beauty parlor, but Irene’s death of colon cancer in 1977 ended that dream. Each year Ron would take Geri to Biasetti’s Italian restaurant on Irving Park Road for their anniversary. Geri also started collecting angels.
In 1983 they moved into the house on Imlay Street. The angels, the stuffed animals–including a four-foot Mickey Mouse that was a gift from Ron to Geri–and the cookie jars all came along. Within a week they had their first dog, a beagle named Bandit. Four years later they added Smokey. Both were named after Geri’s favorite movie, Smokey and the Bandit. Meanwhile, Ron started redoing the basement to turn it into a family room, building custom shelves for the cookie jars. “My dad always used to laugh at the cookie jars,” says Geri. “‘Couldn’t you collect thimbles, something small?’ I ended up having 88 of them. I finally stopped collecting those because it was just taking up way too much space.”
At middle age collecting starts again. This trend begins mostly with men. The data suggests that it’s related to the midlife crisis. It’s a returning to childhood: these things that were calming and soothing, that provided a sense of structure and gave you a sense of control, you’re going to engage in again.
One day around the time Geri had decided to cool it with the cookie jars, Ron was walking through the Golf Mill Shopping Center. “We had seen these little houses in some of the stores, and we thought some of them–like Santa’s workshop, the reindeer barn, the elf bunkhouse–would look cute under the tree or somewhere in the house,” Ron says. He brought home Santa’s workshop and the reindeer barn, part of the North Pole series that had just been issued. In a wreath above the front door of each building was a letter; together the buildings in the series spelled out the words “North Pole.” Ron realized he’d have to spend more money to spell out the entire phrase, so that’s what he started to do. “In the first couple of years we had maybe six or seven pieces, and I would buy a letter or two each year–for her birthday, Christmas, our anniversary.”
“I had them on a rug, no trees; it was nothing,” says Geri. “My friends from work kid me now, saying, ‘Do you remember your first village?'”
A woman writing in a marketing journal about what motivates consumers to engage in collecting identified five paradoxes:
(1) Cooperative v. competitive. You can be very cooperative with other collectors, but you fight against them to get the object.
(2) Rational v. irrational. There is a rationality to it–these are cool little objects, they’re interesting, they have a financial value–but at the same time they’re irrational. I mean, what good do they do? They don’t change people’s lives or help them live longer.
(3) Deliberate v. uncontrollable. You can put time aside for it, it’s very structured, you know who has the objects, where to find out about them, all of the Web sites, the conventions. It’s also uncontrollable. This overpowers you, this need to collect. It can get unquenchable.
(4) Passive v. aggressive. It’s a reclusive, solitary, quiet pursuit, not physically stimulating, very passive and sedentary. But it’s also very aggressive–it can require a great deal of energy to get the objects.
(5) Tension producing v. tension reducing. It’s soothing to see them, to get them, to think about them; it also reduces tension to go out and get them. But you can get tense when you find out there’s an object you don’t have, or when you don’t have room for new objects.
The company that creates the objects of the Hennesseys’ affection is headquartered in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Department 56 began as part of Bachman’s, a large retail floral business that used a numbering system to identify different areas: Department 21 was administration, Department 54 the gift warehouse. Department 56 was the wholesale gift imports division, and its main initial product was Italian basketry. But it was the Snow Village product line, introduced in 1976, that was its first big success. The original series consisted of six lighted, hand-painted porcelain buildings.
In 1984 Department 56 split off from its parent company and incorporated. That year also saw the introduction of the Dickens’ Village Series. Other series followed: New England Village and Alpine Village in 1986, Christmas in the City and Little Town of Bethlehem in 1987. Each series was augmented by a plethora of accessories: trees, people, roads, bridges, lampposts, fake snow crystals, park benches, and village signs.
The company’s 1987 sales were $56 million, and it celebrated by expanding into a new distribution center. In 1990 Department 56 brought out the North Pole series. By 1992 the company was such hot stuff that New York investment firm Forstmann Little bought it. It went public in 1993, its initial offering scooped up by investors eager to cash in on the burgeoning collectibles industry.
Ninety-two percent of the company’s skyrocketing sales were coming through independent gift retailers, approximately 17,500 of them, with names like the Little Traveler and Just Ducky Ltd. and Brumm’s Bloomin’ Barn. Of those, 1,800 had earned the titles “Gold Key” and “Showcase” dealers by satisfying certain corporate requirements, like displaying the product line for at least six months of the year in an “attractive setting”–in other words, the way Ron and Geri would do it. Department 56 tightly controlled prices, accessibility, and product marketing and punished retailers who didn’t follow the rules. It finally opened a retail outlet of its own in 1999 in the Mall of America.
Collecting Department 56 isn’t cheap; buildings and attendant accessories range from $15 to $165–when they’re new. Periodically D56 “retires” pieces, sometimes the same year they’re introduced, in order to create a demand among collectors for the new buildings. Each list of canceled products, announced on eagerly anticipated “retirement nights,” drives up the prices of the retired items and creates a collector frenzy on the secondary market; eBay has an entire section devoted to Department 56. Collectors, determined not to miss the bandwagon, hop aboard.
The Hennesseys’ collection of over 50 buildings and complementary accessories has been a sizable financial investment. But they’re clear that their collection is not about the money. Ron acknowledges that collecting D56 is “a luxury, no doubt about it,” and he says “it’s nice to know that I’ve got a Santa’s workshop they tell me that I can get $500 for. But if I sell it I don’t have it, and it’s a main piece in our village.”
I guarantee that this company understands the motives of its collectors very well. They must have done research on why people collect their particular objects. They probably have personality profiles on their collectors through focus groups, through extensive surveys. Then they play into those motives.
You don’t inundate the market, you let out a few at a time; that scarcity drives up a demand, plays right into the motives for collecting. The retirement itself is interesting; do they really have to retire them? No. It fuels a sense of urgency.
They’re the only game in town. They’ve carefully nurtured that market and have cultivated it. I’m sure they feel justified doing whatever they want to perpetuate it.
Not unlike the Barbie doll and other specialty collections (Lionel Trains, Star Wars anything), the success of Department 56 has paved the way for ancillary businesses, clubs, and hundreds and hundreds of personal Web sites where collectors like Matt Lake, Barbara Swanke, Teri Carlton, Clemente Lopez, Pete Sloan, Jim Carazola, and Art and Madge Haycock show off their displays. Ron and Geri don’t have a Web site, though Geri is known on AOL chat rooms as “D56Brat.” “I’m usually on for retirement nights,” she says. “Last year I was on for four nights [in a row].”
One of the biggest offshoot businesses is a magazine called the Village Chronicle. Peter George and his wife, Jeanne, have published and edited the bimonthly for the last ten years. George began publishing the magazine after “I went to an event and couldn’t find much information on villages.” Three years into publication he hired his wife as editor. “Now I work for her,” he says.
Current circulation is about 15,000, and ten staff writers fill the magazine with how-to articles, decorating ideas, news of upcoming events. “Pretty much if the collector wants to know about it, it’s there,” George says. “We have a very good relationship with D56, from their sales reps on up to upper management. I’m invited to their showroom to photograph their new pieces. The more exposure we give to their product, the better it is for them. Do they cut us a bonus check every now and then? No.”
The magazine’s demographic, according to George, is “50 and older, middle-class and above, people with disposable income, split down the middle between male and female. Men have come on strong in the last six years or so.” George contends that Department 56 “is not the average collectible–this is where I’m chauvinistic. Most porcelains are collected by women, be it Precious Moments, Swarovski crystals, whatever. This is one of the few collectibles that men and women collect together, and grandparents and grandchild collect together. It’s a family collectible. We’re playing with little toy houses, more or less. You buy a piece of Swarovski crystal, you go home, you put it on the shelf, it looks beautiful, and that’s it. You buy a house, you’re making displays with it; you’re going to model railroad shops or flea markets to find things to go with it. It’s a hobby as much as it is a collectible.”
The Village Chronicle doesn’t cover the secondary market (nor does 56, the glossy, quarterly official company publication). But that’s not to say that George isn’t an expert in all things D56–he often speaks at collector conventions and seminars. “One of the seminars that I do is entitled ‘Are You a Collector or a Hobbyist?'”
George’s expert status and speaking engagements have allowed him to observe firsthand the range of collector personalities. He breaks them down into categories: “a collector who wants to buy one or two pieces a year, an average fanatical collector who buys three or four, keeps up to date on new pieces and goes to events, or a fanatic who must have everything.” Having met the Hennesseys on numerous occasions, he describes them as “average fanatical” and includes his wife and himself in this same category. “When you go to these events you end up standing in line, and you start talking to people. With this you’ll see a fireman, a policeman, a truck mechanic, a Fortune 500 CEO–it goes the whole gamut. It’s very easy to make friendships.”
George has also met “a number of people who like to escape realism–it’s how they wish they could see the world. I had a gentleman tell me he goes to the North Pole every night. People see it all different ways.
“When I do a display I have a lot of mishaps happening–I have fun that way. I almost drowned as a kid playing hockey, so I have a kid falling through the ice. I got hit by a car when I was a kid, so I have a kid getting hit by a streetcar. I have people that get a kick out of that, and people who think that’s blasphemous–they think it should all be pristine and perfect. Some people were upset when policemen were introduced to Christmas in the City and upset that a hospital was introduced, and that’s why it’s a maternity hospital, not a regular hospital. There is no crime, no fire, no illness, no death.”
The collector seeking out other collectors satisfies two things. One is the competitive urge. The other is the need for esteem in the eyes of others. Here you find a kindred spirit who would like nothing more than to talk about this all day. It’s exciting. On the other hand, it can be competitive: I’ve got a much larger collection than you do, I can feel really good about myself and I can satisfy my need to compete, to beat others at the game.
As the Hennesseys’ collection grew, so did their involvement with Department 56. “I belong to the Lady Elks up by Western and Howard and I do charitable work there and that has nothing to do with D56,” Geri says, but she and Ron also belong to a Department 56 club called the Village Tinkers. “The collecting part has been a big part of our friendships over the years,” she says. “Everybody in our club loves the villages, loves putting them up. I don’t think any of those that we know of in the club would get rid of their village unless they had to.”
The Hennesseys first encountered the Village Tinkers, which then met in Long Grove, through Geri’s girlfriend Reverie Sherwood. This, by Geri’s recollection, “was probably a year and a half after we were [collecting]. Reverie dragged me to one of the meetings and I came home and I told Ron, ‘You know, there’s a lot of men in this, too,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ Finally, after going to a couple of meetings, I dragged him there with me.” Ron remembers, “There were probably 60 people there, 20 of which were guys. Talking to them I found out that a lot of them were like me: into the construction part.”
They joined the club, which, as Geri clarifies, “was a break off from another club called the Village Attic. Now we’re in Randhurst [Mall], which is in Mount Prospect. We have people that come all the way from Plainfield, Naperville, Crystal Lake, and Barrington.”
Membership in the Village Tinkers, once as high as 54, now hovers around 38. Ron became treasurer of the club after a couple of years, and five years ago he became president. Geri is the group’s secretary. They meet once a month in the rear of a store called Lil Scrapper, owned by club member Trudy Stella. The club puts out a newsletter and organizes a Christmas dinner, a monthly raffle, and all-day house walks two or three times a year.
There are approximately 200 such clubs all over the country, according to Peggy Culler-Hair, president of the National Council of 56 Clubs, an all-volunteer umbrella organization formed in 1992 and based in Columbia, South Carolina. “We represent about 14,925 individuals, a pretty big group,” says Culler-Hair. “And all of those people are collecting Department 56.” Technically the NCC is an independent organization, but Judith Price, director of collector relations for Department 56, “sits on our board in an advisory, nonvoting position and the company is very supportive of our organization. We probably could not exist in the current manner that we do if we were not sanctioned by Department 56.” D56 has issued a club-members-only piece, a tiny NCC clubhouse, and offers other occasional perks here and there. “Sometimes a local dealer…might let club members come in before the general public” when a retirement is announced, says Culler-Hair. But the biggest advantage to club membership is social.
At a January meeting of the Village Tinkers, members seemed thrilled at the chance to discuss their collections with a guest. Participants introduced themselves by name, number of years they’d been collecting, the approximate number of pieces in their collection, and the primary series they collect: “Bonnie, six years, 80 pieces, North Pole.” “Hi, I’m Lil, I’ve been collecting since 1986, I have 43 pieces and lots of accessories, Snow Village.” “Rahleigh and Linda–we have over 300 pieces, something of everything.” Like Ron and Geri, Kent and Joan Carpenter have split their eight years of collecting between Christmas in the City and North Pole. They have 80 pieces total. Nancy Carnes, a collector since 1982, said simply, “I have everything.”
As each person spoke in turn, a palpable excitement filled the room. Here at last was the common bond, the thread that had brought these disparate strangers together, many for almost ten years. Their love and enthusiasm for the little lighted houses swept away the dull business of the rest of the meeting, soothed their disappointment at the cancellation of a national Department 56 display contest they’d taken first prize in the previous year. They were talking about their personal collections now–with a potential convert, no less.
“We have met many, many people in the collecting area, primarily Department 56, people that are really good friends now, and our paths would never have crossed,” Ron says. Four years ago a group of them went on an Alaskan cruise, says Geri. “We had women from Canada, Newark, Tennessee. A group of 37.” She and Ron have attended numerous D56 conventions across the country over the past six or seven years. “We’ve done the swap-and-sells, the room hopping [going from hotel room to hotel room with village pieces and accessories to sell]. We’ve attended dozens of seminars on how to display, collecting for investment purposes, you name it. At the bigger shows they’ll have the artists come in and sign pieces. They had Charles Dickens’s grandson’s wife, his last surviving ancestor. Judith Price is the face that most people know; they call her Ms. Lit Town.” In short, the Hennesseys have “seen everything we can see,” says Geri.
She wasn’t sure she and Ron would attend D56’s 25th anniversary celebration August 17-19 in Saint Paul: “We’ve been up there a couple of times already.” They’ve toured the home office, taken in the store (which features a giant display of every piece of Department 56 ever manufactured), and basically seem to have a bit of Department 56 burnout. “Actually,” Geri admits, “without the club to keep the juices going, it would be kind of boring, the collecting thing.”
There is a way to limit [the collecting] and make it more relevant: Say there’s a group of people, all of whom share this passion. They need to band together to say “We’re going to put some limits on it” or “We’re not going to let the company push us around in that way. Just because there’s another object out there, we don’t have to have it.”
The confluence of D56’s tight control over its products and collector indifference to price have made for a beautiful but perhaps doomed marriage. The Hennesseys have been collecting North Pole paraphernalia for 11 years. Three years ago they started on the Christmas in the City series. Now they’ve run out of display room. And financially they can’t keep it up. In their eyes, D56 has become greedy.
Geri, sounding frustrated, says, “We told Judith [Price] that we think D56 is just inundating the collectors with too many pieces. I personally think that one or two a year is enough. Some of these pieces are over $100, and you don’t have the room. I can’t put another piece into Christmas in the City unless I go up another level, and I have to have activity–I don’t just want houses–so I can’t collect anymore. I don’t know what to do with it.”
The influx of new pieces has also hurt the secondary market, diluting the impact of retirement. “The pieces are supposed to go up in value, but people are selling them for a little over issue because they just want to get rid of them,” Ron says. Geri adds, “I don’t know any people that are buying them anymore for an investment, because going to the conventions and the swap-and-sells I see people trying to sell the same things for three years in a row, and they can’t get rid of them.”
On one hand, Geri admonishes Department 56. “They’re killing us. It was like Beanie Babies; they inundated the market, just came out with so many. A lot of our collectors have stopped, and that’s why we’re down to 38 members–they’re done collecting. That’s a shame.” But she also admits that for years collectors “begged Department 56 for more and more.” With a rueful laugh, she says, “They’ve given us what we wanted and now we don’t want it!”
The company’s financial reports would seem to bear that out. Department 56’s net sales in 2000 were $234 million, compared to a 1999 figure of more than $255 million. A report issued May 15 showed first-quarter 2001 sales of $29.1 million, compared to $42.9 million in the first quarter of 2000. That was no surprise to D56, which on February 23 had announced that orders from its retail customers were down about 35 percent from a year ago. “The company said it is clearly feeling the impact of a slow December and an overall holiday selling season that was significantly below the increase it had planned,” said a press release.
In March D56 filed a lawsuit blaming most of its financial woes on the outside consulting firm that oversaw the installation of a faulty computer operating system. The suit, which asks for a whopping $6 billion, asserts that the computer system installed by Arthur Andersen and Andersen Consulting didn’t work, resulting in customer orders that were lost or misfiled. It claims that Andersen didn’t have the experience to “lead the project.” Furthermore, the project, begun in 1996 and estimated to cost $3 million, totaled $12 million when completed in 1999. D56 contends that it’s had to work overtime to reengage the trust of its customers. Andersen, not surprisingly, says they “look forward to addressing these issues in court.”
The legal hassles won’t end there: multiple shareholder lawsuits have been filed against D56 alleging that the company knew the new computer system was inadequate and willfully misled shareholders in order to keep the stock price from falling. Meanwhile, the company’s second freestanding retail outlet has opened on schedule in Anaheim (as part of Disneyland’s recent California expansion), and new product introductions (and retirements) have gone ahead as planned.
How does a collectibles company keep going when its collectors have hit the wall? Peter George isn’t worried. “People drop off and people continue all the time. I think it very much parallels Lionel Trains: it has its ups and its downs, but it’s been chugging along for a hundred years now. People stop collecting, people pass away, people stop for financial reasons, whatever. But when one group stops collecting, others come in. These are quality products with a family tradition that lend themselves to that perpetual motion of collecting.”
Playing with little figurines, playing with action figures, tiny objects…is a returning to an earlier time when things were simpler and easier and innocent. It’s comforting, I would argue, and that seems to me the reason why it’s the little objects as opposed to big objects like collecting desks or furniture. That’s not the same.
“The village cheers me up,” says Geri matter-of-factly. “I mean, it’s a nice getaway. I come home and I can sit down there with no lights on and stare at the village, with music on, and be…relaxed. When we work on the village and I look at it, like if we’re watching a movie downstairs and we’ve got North Pole going, it takes all the stress out of my life momentarily. When we’re working on it the time flies by. It’s just–very calming.” After a brief pause, she adds, “It’s validating.” Ron nods his head in agreement.
“My friends are always wanting to come over to see what we’ve done,” says Geri. “Christmas Eve we probably have 35 people here, and we have nine children that have come every year since the village went up downstairs, and they look and not one piece has been broken. They are like in awe.”
As Geri speaks, she and Ron guide their visitor through the house, nodding toward points of interest. “At Christmas, my mother always did wonderful decorating things at home. We got together at my aunt’s house on Christmas Eve and we’d sing Christmas carols. I miss those days, because most everyone is gone now.” In the kitchen she gestures toward a display “that has a piece for my grandfather and my uncle and my father–a mishmash of different things, a Dickens’ Village piece, a Snow Village piece. That’s the display that has Johnson’s Grocery, which I changed to Doc Ehle’s Delicatessen because that was my grandfather’s store, and then we’ve got Nephew Fred’s Flat, which we changed for my favorite uncle, Fred, and we’ve got our NCC clubhouse piece, and my father’s butcher shop, and my girlfriend Revie gave me the pet shop because my grandpa was a vet originally.”
Back on the sunporch, Geri points out, “Molly O’Brien’s Irish Pub is for Ron because he’s Irish, and this one”–here she gently fingers the building for a moment–“this is the Fifth Avenue Beauty Salon. It’s named for my mother. We got the Wintergarden Cafe, which is German for me. Dorothy’s Dress Shop is named for my mother-in-law, and it’s attached to a jewelry store, and I like jewelry, so Ron got me that–that was a retired piece, and he paid more than market value and he searched all over because it was a limited edition. That was a very nice Christmas. I was very, very surprised.”
Ron says, “You walk by and you think, ‘My mother-in-law is still here,’ and with Fred, her uncle, I had a great time with him, it just brings back great memories.”
Peter George suspects that “a lot of people see this as their return to Lake Wobegon. It is to each person what they want it to be. I guess that is the fascination.”
Geri and Ron have no intention of ever selling their collection. “They always say ‘keep all the boxes’ because you’re gonna sell it and you can get $500 for the one piece downstairs now,” Geri says. “I don’t wanna sell it. When we don’t want it anymore and my niece gets married, she wants that village downstairs, and it’s hers.”
Until then, it’s time to get back on schedule. Geri ticks off the changes for the upstairs displays: “In January I start thinking about how I want to turn Christmas in the City into spring. I vacuum up all the snow, and I have stuff that looks like grass and I put that down, and I have spring trees. I take out people that have snow on them; I change that. That probably stays until September. Around Labor Day I start getting out the Halloween Village. I have fall leaves and fall trees, so I put in the red and brown and gold leaves–the Halloween Village I change every year and make it something different–and that stays up until Thanksgiving. Then, well”–here she pauses again–“then I start with Christmas.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.