It was about 6 p.m. Saturday evening when Maria Blankenship was tearing down the paper that had covered the windows at Union Furniture for the last eight weeks or so. Just as she did, a car drove past — then promptly backed up to get a peek at what she was unveiling.
Blankenship, who oversees the buying and merchandising for the store, smiled to herself. For the last 18 years she has created the window displays for the business, owned by her parents, Mike and Lynn Haberberger, and always tried to create something extra special for the holiday season.
Customers have noticed, too. Blankenship’s displays have become something people talk about and look forward to seeing at Christmas.
Decades ago, many local residents say, their parents would dress them up in their Sunday best to drive into downtown St. Louis so they could see the holiday window displays at Famous-Barr and Stix, Baer & Fuller. Today those stores are gone, but the experience is not — and now it’s even better, because it’s closer to home.
“Older people will tell me, ‘You have no idea what you’ve done. This is just like when I was a kid and we’d load up in the car and go down to Famous-Barr,’ ” said Blankenship.
Two or three years after she had been creating the displays, employees began to notice cars slowing down as they drove past to take in the scenes, sometimes to the point of creating traffic jams.
Blankenship shrugs off the attention. She creates the displays as much for her own enjoyment as a selling feature for the store.
“I just love Christmas,” she remarked.
“I never thought this was a big deal outside of a selling feature for gifts at Christmas.”
It works, too. Unlike many furniture stores where fourth-quarter sales are typically dismal, it’s just the opposite at Union Furniture. Sales in December are some of the best of the year.
(Look for the store’s Black Friday sale ad in today’s paper.)
Blankenship said she starts planning and buying for the Christmas window displays in July.
“If I see something different and unique, I’ll think, ‘That has to go in a window!’ because it will catch people’s attention.”
One example is the camouflage chair that’s featured in the hunting-theme window.
When Blankenship first began creating the Christmas window displays, Union Furniture only had eight large picture windows, but since then the store expanded and now there are 15.
Each window display has a different theme, and every one has a designer-looking Christmas tree dripping with ornaments and unexpected decor — like gardening shovels on the garden-theme tree or roasted marshmallows on sticks and oversized candy canes on the tree in the gingerbread-theme window.
Some themes return year after year, but Blankenship always adds several new ones.
“I usually build off the furniture, or I might see something at the furniture market or accessories market that’s really cool. Then it’s like a domino effect,” she said.
They began covering the windows as Blankenship developed the displays not just to build anticipation, but also because one year a customer purchased an entire display just before the store’s annual Holiday Open House (always held the Sunday before Thanksgiving), and Blankenship was left scrambling to fill the space.
Creating the elaborate window displays is intensive work that keeps Blankenship at the store until late at night. Every year she tries to quit what has now become a tradition, but no one will let her — everyone looks forward to it too much.
Elizabeth’s in New Haven
At Elizabeth’s Antiques, Gifts and Home Decor in downtown New Haven, owner Sherry Byram and her mother, Evelyn LaBoube, hear much the same thing: People drive downtown just to get a peek at their displays.
LaBoube, who imagines and creates the displays, says she changes them out once a month to keep them fresh and attracting attention. Each display has a theme, tying into an upcoming holiday or season.
Christmas is always especially fun, said LaBoube. Last year she had her husband make an oversized sled for the display. It took up two-thirds of the window, but it definitely caught people’s eyes.
This year’s theme is nostalgia. The current displays features figurines of old-time carolers amidst Christmas greenery and old-fashioned Christmas toys set up around a 1950s-era TV.
LaBoube plans to change the display by Friday, Dec. 6, for New Haven’s annual Christmas by Moonlight event, where the downtown shops stay open until 9 p.m. every Friday in December. There will be food and drink samples, as well as music and fire pits burning along Front Street so shoppers can stay warm as they walk from store to store.
The distillery will offer tastings, the New Haven Grill and Levee Bar will be open, and Father Christmas may even be strolling around with some carolers.
The items featured in Elizabeth’s windows are often a mixture of merchandise found inside, said LaBoube. The store sells antiques found at auctions and also new home decor items, like candles, soaps, food mixes and wall plaques with inspiring sayings made by a couple in Gerald.
A few pieces are on consignment, like the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls featured in the current display.
LaBoube said inspiration for a window display often comes from a single item she comes across.
“When I go to an auction, if I see something, I’ll start planning and brainstorming,” she said.
Knowing how much people look forward to seeing the displays actually makes her work harder.
“It’s hard to keep topping yourself,” LaBoube remarked.
Byram said she knew when she decided to open the store that her mother would be in charge of merchandising and displays.
“She always has to go one step above,” Byram remarked.
In fact, Byram, who also works as an ag teacher in Owensville, said it was the windows of the building at the corner of Front and Miller streets in downtown New Haven that drew her to that location.
“I wanted those windows,” she said, “just knowing what we could do with them.”
Byram, who teaches a floriculture class, tries to impart to her students how important window displays are to a business. It’s a shopper’s first impression.
“It is the most important image,” she said. “As a shopper, I automatically think if the window isn’t very nice, than nothing inside is either.”
Four Seasons in Washington
The Christmas window display at Four Seasons Florist in Downtown Washington is always so popular that a few years ago, shoppers actually asked if they could bring in their children to pose in the window for their family Christmas card photos.
That was the year of the penguin display, said owern Michel Otten. “It was all birch trees, snow and penguins.”
Last year’s dog-themed display was also popular, said Julie Prenger, the store’s floral manager who designs and creates the window displays.
“I found a dog book at a garage sale and just knew that was going to be a window,” said Prenger.
“It was all about what a dog would want for Christmas, and every page had a different breed.”
The window display featured a Christmas tree with a variety of dog items, and Prenger had copied and laminated each of the pages of the book to hang in the window. She also purchased some items, like lighted dog figurines from a local hardware store and oversized dog bones that she made over with glitter to hang in the window too.
This year Prenger admits she was short on inspiration for the Christmas display so she did a search on Google to get ideas. Once she found something she liked, she tweaked it to make it her own.
“Once I have an idea, I start looking for stuff to use,” said Prenger.
Four Seasons has three picture windows to decorate, and this year the themes are snowmen, “Stories by the Fire” using vintage Little Golden Books, and vintage sewing.
Come January, they will each have a new theme. Prenger said she changes them out monthly. Customers and passers-by aren’t shy about letting her know when they especially like what she’s come up with.
“Some people just open the door and shout in, ‘Your window looks great!’ and then leave,” said Prenger, noting she often brings her 3-year-old daughter down to look at the windows in the evening to get her reaction.
“Night is the best time to see them,” she commented.
People who attend the Parade of Lights in Downtown Washington this Friday evening, Nov. 29, will have a chance. Four Seasons plans to stay open until 7 p.m. (The store also has a Black Friday coupon in today’s newspaper.)
Prenger said although creating the window displays is a challenge — “it’s backward . . . you have to build from the front out” — she enjoys the end result.
“It makes me feel good when the windows look pretty,” she said. “It’s like your front porch at home; you want it to look nice.”
It also can be a great selling feature. Once a customer purchased two sets of furniture directly from the window display.
At the same time, Prenger said many customers may be drawn into the store because of the window displays, but once inside they find plenty of items to interest them.
Otten said she’s always proud of the job Prenger does on the windows, and knows many people enjoy window gazing, especially at Christmas.
“We always did that when we were kids, drove down to Famous-Barr and Stix, Baer & Fuller (in St. Louis) after Thanksgiving dinner, just to see the window displays. That’s when they unveiled them,” she said.
Competition to Transform Vacant Storefronts
For the last several years, Downtown Washington Inc. has invited local groups to decorate the windows of vacant storefronts for the Christmas season as part of a competition. Each year has a theme, and the group with the best window displays wins.
“We wanted to bring an additional festive feeling to the available storefronts and show their potential as retail spaces,” said Danielle Grotewiel, who oversees the project.
The windows are always completed in time for the downtown Parade of Lights on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
From the start the response to the windows has been fantastic, said Grotewiel. And it’s never hard to get groups to participate.
“(They) jumped at the chance to showcase their creativity and add to the holiday spirit downtown,” she said.
Downtown shoppers love the windows, too.
“We have heard many positive comments. People enjoy the nostalgia of being able to stroll through downtown and look at the holiday window decorations. Plus they may learn about a group that they were unaware of before,” said Grotewiel.
This year the theme is Christmas at the Movies. In 2011, it was Show Your Holiday Spirit, and last year it was Christmas Memories. That brought varied window designs from toys and Christmas morning to remembering the troops, said Grotewiel.
“They have all been so creative,” said Grotewiel. “I am impressed by the time and thought that they all put into their designs.”