Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald | Photos by Anthony Harden
Asheville’s Bruce Tompkins doesn’t wait until the first week of November to start putting up the holiday decorations in his retail store…
Christmas carols serenade you as you walk in the front door. A salutation of “Merry Christmas” is directed at you with a friendly smile. A countdown with the number of days to Christmas is prominently posted. And these are the greetings you receive very day of the year at The Olde World Christmas Shoppe.
Bruce Tompkins is the owner of the store that offers “everything you ever wanted for Christmas.” Ornaments and collectibles in a wide range of price points are showcased in the circa early-1900 house located at 5 Boston Way in Asheville’s Historic Biltmore Village.
Tompkins was born in South Georgia in the little town of Thomasville, Georgia, also the birthplace of actress Joanne Woodward. He likes to tell young people that he is from the same town as Paul Newman’s wife. Oftentimes, they look at him at ask, “Who’s Paul Newman?”
Tompkins, who attended Emory University in Atlanta, previously had a career in marketing with Southern Bell that kept him in Atlanta until they offered him an early retirement.
“We bought several of these buildings [in Biltmore Village] in Asheville about a year before I retired,” remembers Tompkins. “We didn’t move up here until 1992. We bought these buildings in 1989 and opened the Christmas Shoppe in 1989. And then decided—why don’t we move up there? Our six children had basically left home. Two were still in college at the time. It worked out well. I’m so glad I’m not in Atlanta right now. It’s a great place for young people to find jobs, but it’s miserable as far as traffic is concerned.”
You may think that in order to open a Christmas store you would have to be related to the Clark Griswold character in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation movie. Or perhaps wear a Santa hat 365 days a year. This is not the case for Tompkins—he declares that he is not a Christmas fanatic. While the holidays were a big deal for him and visible everywhere when he was growing up, he opened The Olde World Christmas Shoppe because he saw the potential of a good investment.
“I had a sister up here that managed a Christmas shop that was already in the Village. We figured we could open a Christmas shop and she could manage it. Over a short period of time, that didn’t really work out. My wife would come up here and sometimes I would come up on the weekends until I retired in ’91, and then we moved up here.
“I had a lawyer in Atlanta that dealt with the Ingles property department, and Atlanta is not a great investment place for property—you can get real lucky, but that’s basically it. The Ingles people recommended that I come look at the Village. They felt like it was going to take off. And it did.”
The store was initially located in the building across the street. Tompkins relocated to the current larger location in 1992.
Tompkins’ wife, Brenda, passed away in 2015. He credits her with having a knack for Christmas: “My wife was very good at it. She was very decorative. And we hired some people to help us with that.”
For a tourist location, a Christmas store is ideal. Tompkins knows and values the tourists who visit Western North Carolina and his business every year. This summer, he saw customers from every corner of the world and every continent except Antarctica.
“We get the locals starting around Thanksgiving. We have a good number of locals who come in that are collectors and we carry things that people collect Christmas-wise. But the rest of the year is basically tourists. I question why some of the people come up here. A few weeks ago, we had two separate couples from Australia. Why would someone from Australia come to Asheville, North Carolina? We get a lot of people from Great Britain and Scotland and South America.
“[Asheville is] probably one of the top 10 culinary destinations in the United States, and I think that brings people. We usually ask anybody we wait on where they are from. I guess the most—Illinois and Indiana are very prevalent. Florida would be the number one.”
Special events such as the recent World Equestrian Games in Tryon and the Chihuly Glass Sculptures at Biltmore also bring an uptick in tourists. While the Christmas Shoppe offers seasonal merchandise, it is open year-round. (His staff includes manager Laura Rathbone and five part-time employees, a few college students among them.) The busiest months are, as one might expect, November and December. As Tompkins pointed out, locals start visiting the shop around Thanksgiving or before, but it is those out-of-town visitors who sustain the bottom line for the rest of the year. An after-Christmas sale is held each year to prepare for inventory.
But what happens in January as people are taking down their holiday decorations and packing them away?
“We’re dead,” admits Tompkins. “Since we do so much those later months, we have the wherewithal to carry us through. Even though January is pretty dead, it is [also] dead in Asheville. You can go to the mall and rarely see anyone. We start picking up again in April.”
Brightest and Best
And the Christmas holiday season appears to be getting bigger and arriving earlier each year. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, nine in ten Americans (90 percent) say they celebrate Christmas. Gone are the days when Christmas “appears” after Thanksgiving. Holiday movies and music can now be found even before the Halloween pumpkins are put away.
Decorations will be the second highest expense for Christmas celebrators, after gifts. LendEDU polled consumers last year and discovered Christmas decorations will be responsible for 12.69 percent of the total holiday cost, or $89.95. This is not surprising, considering that many trees are decorated before December 1 and light displays shine brightly as neighbors strive to be the “brightest and best” on their block.
The selection of merchandise at The Olde World Christmas Shoppe is displayed elegantly throughout the two-story building. The upstairs is fittingly called “Candyland,” as all the ornaments have a sweet treat theme. Downstairs, one room is dedicated to collectibles that include ANRI woodcarvings, Inge-Glas, and Christopher Radko ornaments. Byers Choice handmade figurines are a popular line with a distinctive look.
People return each year to add a piece to their collection. There is even a layaway plan for those higher dollar items. Customers like to browse and look at the colorful displays that include both inexpensive and very expensive items.
“The most challenging part is keeping up with inventory—what changes from year to year, and can we stay on board with these changes,” explains Tompkins. “Because there is a lot of stuff that fades and new things come up. You’ve got to keep a range of decorative type stuff. Some people don’t like some things and other people like weird things. So, we try and mix it.”
An annual buying trip to the Atlanta Merchandise Mart provides Tompkins’ staff with a look at new items. He describes the event as “probably the biggest in the world. It’s held in January. By going to that show we see the new things. Those people have done research on what’s good to carry or what’s not good to carry, and we see things come up, do very well, and then fade.”
The new merchandise gets integrated with classic holiday items such as German Smokers and Nutcrackers, snow globes and Santas—even a replica of the iconic lamp from beloved cult-fave movie A Christmas Story. Pet ornaments are a good seller that can be personalized with your pet’s name. Asheville-themed ornaments are also big sellers, along with bear ornaments, which could be considered a tribute to the two bears that are seen roaming around the Village. Ornaments made locally are carried whenever possible, and beautifully decorated wreaths are designed in-house. Displays are changed constantly as merchandise is sold and new products arrive.
A large Christmas pyramid adorns the large window display and mesmerizes those walking by the store. Several smaller versions are also available of this decoration that has its roots in the folklore of the Ore Mountain region of Germany. Made up of a pyramidal outer frame with candle holders and a central carousel with a rotor at the top driven by warm air from the lit candles, they are typically decorated with nativity scenes and other Christmas figures. Most now operate on electricity rather than candle power.
Many of the ornaments have a vintage, retro feel that dates back to the 1940s and ‘50s. “When I was a child, you bought those ornaments in dime stores,” says Tompkins, somewhat wistfully. “Now you don’t,” he adds, referencing the price point that is much larger than a dime.
Since the opening of the Christmas Shoppe, the landscape of retail shopping has changed considerably in the wake of big box stores and Internet shopping. Tompkins maintains that to his knowledge these changes have not impacted his business—the store does not offer online sales—saying, “A lot of the stuff we carry the big box stores don’t. The big box stores are seasonal with Christmas. We’re not. We do very well in the summertime with tourists. I think a lot of people just enjoy the Christmas environment in this shop. We get a lot of compliments on it. People come in—and some of these people will stay in this shop for two hours doing nothing but looking.”
Biltmore Village is thriving today with unique shops and popular restaurants, but when Tompkins purchased three buildings in 1989 it looked very different. There were some “mom and pop” businesses, but often when a building was rented, it wouldn’t be long-term.
“The Village was semi-slum,” he recalls. “And I don’t say that like a New York slum. It was low-end, and a lot of the houses were in need of repair of different degrees. Then a lady came along and opened Chelsea’s Café & Tea Room. After we started renovating some of these buildings, I think people that had strong businesses were desirable to make their business out here. Now it’s a great tourist destination.”
Tompkins still owns two buildings in the Village—the one, of course, where The Olde World Christmas Shoppe is located, and the one across the street which he rents to Estate Jewelry Ltd..
“These houses were built right around 1900, 1904. A lot of people want to say that the people who worked at the (Biltmore) House lived in this Village—that’s not really true. The head veterinarian on the Estate lived in one of the Village houses, but the average worker at the Estate couldn’t afford to rent out here. A lot of them lived on the street behind us and those are smaller houses.”
(Speaking of common wisdom regarding Biltmore Village: When asked about the dreaded flooding issue that seems to come up at least once a year, Tompkins happily reports that in all of his years of being in business, the shop has only flooded once—in 2004, with four-to-five inches of water on the floor downstairs.)
Since Tompkins moved to Western North Carolina in the early 1990s, the area has seen many changes, including the continued growth of Asheville. There are some downsides to this growth in his opinion, though.
“I love this town. I’m a Rotarian and I participate very much in that. I like where I live—near Beaver Lake. I love the restaurants. My kids love to come up here when they can. I like the town. I’ve been here long enough where I have seen a lot of changes. If you moved here five years ago, you haven’t seen that many because we were well on [the current expansion] path. Asheville probably has some of the highest real estate in the state. And we have three colleges here. The average two-bedroom apartment rents for about $1,400 a month. That’s very hard for a college student.”
Store manager Laura Rathbone says the people are her favorite part of working there, and she likes looking for items that are fun and unique to add to the selection of merchandise.
During my visit I overheard her talking to a couple originally from Arkansas who now live in Raleigh. After spending one night in Asheville, they ate breakfast and made one stop in the Village to check out the Christmas ornaments and purchase one for a gift. Another customer comes in from Minnesota, then Oklahoma, then Simpsonville, South Carolina. She speaks to each of them, asking where they are from and sharing a laugh.
“I really hope we are creating a Christmas atmosphere so they can leave the street or anything else behind and come in here and it’s a wonderland,” she tells me later. “That’s what, really, I think is important. Saying ‘Merry Christmas’ when you walk in the door—some people say you’re rushing it, but that’s not the point. The point is that we would really like for people to experience Christmas and feel what they can create at home.”
Rathbone wants the shop to offer something for everyone, including children. She notes that there are limited activities for children under the age of 12 in the Village, so a scavenger hunt for kids is now in place inside the shop. The hunt is for a Christmas Pickle ornament, based on the old German tradition of the pickle being the last ornament hung on the Christmas tree and the first child to find the pickle receiving an extra present. The prize in this hunt—a lollipop.
On another fun note, a sign behind the counter states, “4 days since the Elves Broke Something.” Rathbone says this is a fun way to track if and when an employee or customer breaks an ornament—a unique twist on the Lost Time Accident scoreboards many companies post.
Santa visited the shop while he was vacationing in Asheville this summer, and he is expected back on December 1 during this year’s Dickens in the Village Festival, held the first weekend in December. The festival includes strolling carolers dressed in Dickensian era costumes. Carriage rides and warm roasted chestnuts help set the mood for a perfect holiday weekend throughout the Village.
“The City (of Asheville) has helped us with it,” says Tompkins. “We have a guy name Joey Moore who’s a musician in town, and he does stuff like that and works with events. He has always been on board with us and helps with the Dickens weekend festival. It’s busy and it’s fun. We have food vendors. It’s just fun.”
If given the opportunity, Tompkins would do nothing differently with his business. He never tires of the Christmas carols or the echoes of Merry Christmas throughout the shop. He appreciates the fact that only red and green pens are available for customers to sign their credit card slips. From his upstairs office he has witnessed the revitalization of Biltmore Village and seen the surrounding city and region grow in popularity for locals and visitors alike.
And perhaps most importantly, he offers a dose of Christmas cheer to those who enter The Olde World Christmas Shoppe throughout the year.
“It’s just hard to be in a bad mood in a Christmas store!”
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