By Rosalie Tirella
I suppose it’s no great shakes to say: Lots of my favorite things in my house – in my life! – thru the years, have come from the Christmas Tree Shoppe in Shrewsbury and that I can’t believe this Massachusetts RETAIL ICON is dead. Table cloths, kitchen curtains, a unique end table…still with me, still my fave home furnishings!
So why the sordid, junky demise for a once amazing store – a shopping adventure, really! – with its final customers these days whining about the stores’ final liquidation sales? Over-priced crap! they say. Mark-ups! they cry! The Christmas Tree Shoppe always offered nice stuff – underpriced! – and marked down! The answer? Behemoth Amazon and well priced Behemoth Wayfare and their easy, inexpensive shipping policies. Plus the global Pandemic/COVID. Plus the proliferation of the dollar stores and the dollar generals – all upping their home goods and decor game. And, of course, behemoth Walmart, with Better Homes and Gardens even designing their own brand of furniture and household goods for Walmart (nice stuff). And don’t forget Target – offering coolness and designer chic for the masses … inexpensive but oh so stylish.
The competition was terrific. Most of all Americans got very lazy – and misanthropic? – opting to have little to do with their fellow humans, choosing to sit on their fat duffers at home – probably on a chair with a Christmas Tree cushion or throw on it – scrolling down their computer screen buying, ordering EVERYTHING on line. You can now be agoraphobic and still have a refrigerator full of groceries, a cabinet full of dog food and cat toys…a table laden with amazing, exotic take-out meals and the basic take-out grub. America has gotten very weird, so unlike the America my late mom, my siblings and school classmates and I knew – and loved. ONE BIG CHAOTIC FRACTIOUS AMERICAN FAMILY going out to church, men’s and women’s clubs, the boys club, the girls club, dance halls, bowling alleys, movie theaters, town and city parks and swimming pools. Bowling, eating, swimming, watching movies TOGETHER, cheek by jowl. Sure it was sweaty and you could sometimes smell your neighbor, but admit it: it was ultimately cozy, intimate … human.
In the old days, shopping at the Christmas Tree Shoppe with your mom and aunt or favorite cousin or your kid sister or next door neighbor at the Wonderful Christmas Tree Shoppe on Route 20 in Shrewsbury was the ultimate in gal pal fun. The store was huge, beautifully appointed, super clean, super well organized, and every square foot boasted pretty, sometimes, gorgeous stuff. You grabbed your gal pal for a do it yourself retail adventure – fun, intimate … special. For me, all I needed was $25, $30 tops! And you always came home with a bargain. In fact the Christmas Tree Shoppes’ motto for years and years – sung by those middle-aged ladies on the radio – “DON’T YOU JUST LOVE A BARGAIN?!”
Yes, we did! At our Christmas Tree Shoppe in Shrewsbury! Better than Spag’s, down the road, because the CTS didn’t feel like a stuffed to the gills warehouse with stuff unorganized and still in shipping boxes. They didn’t believe in bags so you brought a cardboard box for your purchases. Once, while looking for nightgowns, I stumbled upon the rifle section. Guns and granny flannel nighties…classic Spag’s. Too radical for me! I wanted tasteful and soothing … Spag’s, even with Anthony Spags in his 10-gallon cowboy hat and his annual tomato plant giveaways didn’t speak to me. The Christmas Tree Shoppe did.
The CTS gave you attractive bags for your purchases and put your stuff in those bags, their aisles were neat and attractive and … flowed … Their furniture wasn’t Rotman’s quality, but you could still pick up very attractive, solid end tables, side tables, coffee tables, small book cases, lamps, rugs, wicker lawn furniture … And their linens? Thick, beautifully patterned or bright and colorful … 100% cotton and they made a room pop. I loved their table cloths, draperies, kitchen curtains, table runners, napkins, place mats – all pretty, many gorgeous, often on sale for like $4 bucks. Didn’t I just love a bargain!
I used to dream in Christmas Tree Shoppe… look forward to their weekly flyers and circle the dishware or seasonal knick knacks I coveted that I saw in those flyers. I’d call my kid sister, still living in Worcester, or just visit her and declare just like that in the middle of the big three decker Green Island kitchen: MARY, LET’S GO TO THE CHRISTMAS TREE SHOPPE!
We were in our thirties back then – alive, especially me, to the life changing possibilities of … home decor! Now I know that’s all nonsense, often a way to camouflage feelings or fill the holes in your life. My immigrant grandparents had nothing when they lived in the Block on Bigelow Street during the early 1920s, but they were so in love with each other, so grateful to their God for being able to come to America from Poland that furniture was just … furniture. A chair to sit on. A bed to sleep in. A kitchen table to eat your dinner on. Purely functional. My Bapy’s prized possession? A peddle-push Singer Sewing Machine with wrought iron “legs” – the machine on which she and later my aunt, her eldest daughter, made all the little kids’ dresses and coats.
But me? In my 30s I was always looking for that special something for my 10-room!!!, lovely Vernon Hill or Quinsigamond Village flat – always in one of Worcester’s old three decker with a fussy Woo landlord who’d grown up there or his wife had her childhood memories there … always on the third floor, always with the cheapo rent, always making me feel regal with two big three decker windows in each bedroom (3!!!) and three windows in the living room and the kitchen. I always needed curtains and draperies! Bought exclusively at the Christmas Tree Shoppe in Shrewsbury for a song …
So, years back, in the early 1990s, during the heyday of the Christmas Tree Shoppes and “DON’T YOU JUST LOVE A BARGAIN?” mania, my “kid” sister and I – like half the middle-aged women and their sisters or best gal pals in Worcester County – would make an afternoon of it and drive to the Shrewsbury Christmas Tree Shoppe for two or three hours, an afternoon, of ooohhing and ahhing over pretty, quality Thanksgiving serving platters or adorable Christmas tree ornaments or big hot pink beach umbrellas and towels or funky throw pillows and draperies or clean lined cutlery or wonderfully huge prints of the Eiffel Tower or mugs of cocoa waiting on the table for you and your soul mate, the kitchen window open, the backyard drowning in sunlight…or maybe there were big framed art photos… of a cat sitting on a door mat waiting just for you to come home …or a couple drenched to the bone, kissing in the rain! For the college kids with dorm room walls to decorate there were prints of electric guitars and musical notes and … Paris. Middle class parents loved this store when it came to college time for their kids: you could furnish your son or daughter’s dorm room for about $300 bucks. I could do it for $150.
For the lucky ladies with hubbies with good jobs – living in pretty houses in the suburbs of Westboro or Northboro – oftentimes it meant visiting the CTS with their gal pals to pick up not very expensive but always fun and happy decor for their little lake house or the beach “shack” on the Cape. I could always recognize these woman when I saw them: they were preppy, attractive, fine lines on their slack but still beautiful faces, long hair pulled back in pony tails, tanned, very tanned, and athletic looking even beneath their breezy khaki shorts that stopped at the tops of their knees (they were hunting for tableware, not guys!) and plaid button-down blouses.
For me and my sister, we’d hop into my jalopy, get some coffee for the drive and zip up Route 20. We never talked much, were not very chatty…just me telling my sister: Once where there, don’t get lost. Meet me at greeting cards after an hour. Ok? Let’s stick together this time!
Mary’d nod her head and say sure, but, true to form, as always, she wouldn’t be at greeting cards at the requested time. She’d be at the opposite end of the big store…maybe perusing the coffee mugs, choosing a cute one for our mom, with whom she still lived and adored. Or maybe she’d be examining the bottles of bubble bath in the cosmetics/personal care aisle – she loved taking bubble baths … So, for 15 minutes, I’d walk up and down almost every aisle of the Christmas Tree Shoppe whisper-yelling: MARY! WHERE ARE YOU? MARY!!! It was during pre-cell phone days – and kinda fun. I’d always find my sister, oblivious to my calls, her nose in a Marilyn Monroe picture book for sale or maybe scoping out the beach flip flops. Sometimes she’d be secretive with me because she had just bought me a little porcelain pup or maybe two candle stick holders for my new used kitchen table in my apartment. Always the good sister, the thoughtful sister, helping Ma pay the bills now that she had a good job in Boston. Running the household with Ma because Daddy was out having fun. My favorite sister! In my favorite store! Both unassuming yet … treasures!
Mary went to church with my mother every Sunday. She went grocery shopping every Saturday morning – taking a cab to and from the supermarket because they were still unable to buy a car and Mary didn’t have her driver’s license. Mary supported my mother. She loved Green Island and would visit the owners of the mom and pop stores on Millbury Street just to say hi and maybe buy some apples or a curtain rod or an order of fish and chips. She was a counter girl at Commercial Fruit for years – loving the family who owned the Millbury Street biz. Getting such a kick out of the big-bummed owner, Macho, mimicking his accent when she came home after work, laughing at his antics at the fruit store – Macho always freaking out over the little things – but in a comical way.
Everyone loved Mary. I was more show woman – Mary was the real deal. The best of Green Island. Once our downstairs neighbor, I could hear her thru our bathroom floor, said to her husband: “MARY IS GOLD.” She didn’t much care for me, thought I was selfish … definitely not gold.
But that was years ago… Christmas Tree Shoppe days…when, after our shopping spree – me with my new kitchen curtains and table cloth, Mary with her little gift for my mother and James Dean picture book – driving home, feeling content and slightly proud of our bargains … I’d open up the box of plain bagel chips I had bought and offer some to my sister and we’d start munching away…. snacking all the way home, to my mother and sister’s house, the same apartment in the same old three decker in Lafayette Street. We were still poor, we had not bought a lot of things at the Christmas Tree Shoppe. But we were happy, listening to the music on the radio as I drove down route 20, my sister looking out her window, looking for and smiling at the Rainbow Motel – the motel where each of the “rooms” were teeny cottages, every tiny dwelling painted its own special color: pink, blue, mint green, yellow. Mary just loved those cottages!
Christmas Tree Shoppe memories!