Brian Young thought he was going to retire. It was the late 1980s, and the Londoner had just sold his jewelry store chain in the U.K. It was time to play tennis and relax with his wife and young son, he thought. That was before Young, then in his 50s, visited his brother-in-law, who was living in San Diego, and fell in love with the city—and the sun. With its predictably warm climes, Young reasoned, there was little risk of rained-out tennis games, a passion he shared with his wife and planned to indulge in retirement. So Young packed up his life, and his racquet, and moved there on a whim.
“Being retired was marvelous—at least for the first three months. I needed something to occupy my time,” says the now-86-year-old Young, his London twang intact despite three decades in California. Almost instantly, he had an idea for a Christmas shop. In 1990, he opened a 1,000-square-foot-store, called City Lights Collectibles that sold holiday trinkets: brightly colored decorations, wreaths, some faux fir trees, and a few other similar items. Initially, Young only planned to have it open three days a week. “It was the only business I knew I wasn’t going to be busy all the time, and that’s what I wanted,” he says. But the normally savvy Young was mistaken. He quickly outgrew that first site, and moved to a new location where he began taking over adjacent plots until he secured City Lights Collectibles’ current, enormous footprint: a 28,000-square-foot store with a 10,0000-square-foot warehouse attached. Over the years, Young has expanded into production, too, partnering with a tree-making firm, for example, on an exclusive line of artificial firs. There are also two full-time personalizers on-staff who will customize ornaments and other collectibles on-demand.
Perhaps surprisingly, City Lights has become a place of pilgrimage for any Christmas aficionado, whom Young notes typically fall into one of two categories. The first are collectors, he says, who splurge on lines of collectibles and ornaments from companies that have become holiday staples, like Department 56, known for its miniature houses, and Kurt Adler and Christopher Radko, both specialists in polonaise, or highly decorated glass ornaments. They reserve limited editions of these trinkets as soon as they’re announced each year, often in the spring, and pick them up as Christmas approaches. The second are layaway buyers—think, grandmothers with two dozen grandchildren who start their shopping in January or February, right after the holiday ends, and slowly build up their haul over the course of the year, saving in order to buy some of their supplies just before Christmas. There are tourists, too, of course: City Lights has become an icon in this surf-mad city.
City Lights isn’t the only big Christmas business in sun-soaked southern California. Take a short drive up the coast, to Corona del Mar, and you’ll find the seven-acre Roger’s Gardens, a home and garden store also known for its well-stocked Christmas boutique. The family behind it stumbled into the holiday business much as Young did, according to Hedda Staines, another British expat, who’s in charge of overseeing the dozens of buyers there. Two decades ago, she says, the garden center started selling a few tidbits for Christmas, like ornaments; but the team quickly realized there was a standalone market for holiday enthusiasts. These days, the store receives one million visitors each year between October and December, Staines says, and sells around 40,000 ornaments annually—but that’s just the start. “We had this life-sized statue of a deer last year, which I called Cedric, who was fully articulated and could move his head from left to right,” she says, laughing. “He was $6,999, and we sold him straightaway.”
Southern California is an unlikely locale for not one, but two, Christmas megastores. But perhaps that’s part of the lure: the evocative wintry scenes in both stores are a stark contrast to the region’s relentlessly warm climate. Money is likely another reason: San Diego county has the fifth-highest number of millionaires in America, with more than 100,000 such households that meet or exceed that metric; median property value in San Diego county is around $606,200, almost three times the national average of $217,600. Decorating those giant mansions each season is a big, and potentially lucrative, niche—and indeed, one of America’s foremost professional holiday decorating companies started right here in San Diego, in 1998, not long after Young opened City Lights Collectibles. The Christmas Lights Pros—who you can call at 866-WE-HANG-4-U—now offers professional tree-trimming and more in almost two dozen states.
Some San Diego-based rivals have remained focused solely on this market, like DTek Christmas Creations, which specializes in lighting—think grid-stressing displays of thousands of bulbs in the front yard. Others, like interiors store Le Dimora spun up their own City Lights-style Christmas department. Demand for Le Dimora’s decorating services is so intense each year that you’re only likely to land a slot for its tinsel-wielding elves to trim your home if you book by the end of June.
Southern California, of course, isn’t the only place where Christmas lovers can come to get their fill. Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Michigan, for example, is such a draw to rural Frankenmuth—according to its owner, it now attracts two million shoppers annually—that in 1976, it was designated an embassy for Michigan Tourism. And the Incredible Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, claims to be “The South’s Largest Christmas Store!” at 35,000 square feet. But incongruous SoCal might be the densest with holiday cheer. It’s not just trees and trinkets either: Miracle and Sippin’ Santa are two pop-up bar concepts that started in New York, serving Christmas-themed cocktails like the cranberry-powered Christmaspolitan and the eggnoggy Gingerbread Flip. This year, there will be over 100 locations of these pop-ups around the country (modified according to local COVID-19 protocols, of course), as Greg Boehm, who owns both concepts, effectively franchises out his idea—including in San Diego, at local cocktail bar Polite Provisions.
It might seem unlikely, but anyone who needs a jolt of Christmas cheer after the marathon of 2020 shouldn’t head to the mountains, but to the beaches of southern California—where you can pretend, at least for a while, that it’s Christmas every single day.
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