BooksChristmastime seems to be the season for saying sad farewells to beloved retailers. One day, in late 2006, I wandered down to Tower Books and noticed that several lights were burnt out in that familiar red-and-yellow sign. Instead of TOWER BOOKS, it appeared to read WER OK. But, of course, they weren’t okay. They were dying. I went inside and discovered that the shelves were half empty. For the next two months, a firm that specialized in bankruptcy liquidations, sold off Tower’s remaining stock at bargain-basement prices. For some reason there were about forty copies of the Signet Classics edition of Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd in the store when I wandered into Tower for the last time. Whoever ordered the books must have gone a little overboard on that title. Like everything else in the store, the book was selling at half price. I paid $2.98 plus tax. That was the last money I ever spent at Tower. The store closed for good on the evening of December 17, 2006, one week before Christmas Eve.

This year, local shoppers are faced with the Christmastime closing of another landmark Sacramento retailer – the William Glen store at the Town and Country shopping mall. William Glen specialized in high-end home décor and kitchen products. My wife and I could afford very little of the merchandise on display at William Glen, but we loved to visit the store nonetheless, especially at Christmastime, when it was always beautifully decorated. The store has been struggling financially since the onset of the recent recession. Last year, Julie and I visited the store shortly before Thanksgiving, to purchase an inexpensive butter dish and a paring knife. The store’s owner and co-founder William Snyder himself rang up our purchases and wished us happy holidays. A month later he was dead. Now, one year later, the store that Snyder and his former partner Glen Forbes founded in 1963 is also about to expire. Julie and I have been visiting the William Glen Christmas store every year for the past decade or so to buy Christmas-tree ornaments in the shape of a volleyball player for our volleyball-playing granddaughters. A few weeks ago we went to the store to see if we could find one last volleyball Christmas ornament to give to our granddaughter Ashleigh, a high-school senior who competed in her final high-school volleyball game in November. Sadly, there were none to be found.

Shopping for Christmas ornaments always reminds me of the glass hummingbird ornament Julie purchased from a little gift shop located just a few blocks from the home we were renting in downtown Auburn back in 1993. The glass hummingbird was the same size as a real hummingbird, which meant that its beak was about an inch and a half long and nearly as thin as a piece of angel-hair pasta. As soon as I saw the ornament, I knew it would never last. We have always owned cats – usually no less than three or four at a time. And cats love to play with Christmas ornaments. That’s why Julie and I normally purchase only ornaments made of wood or metal or plastic or some shatterproof composite. If a cat bats a metallic angel off the tree, the angel is likely to survive the fall. But a glass hummingbird would never survive such treatment.

“What were you thinking?” I asked Julie when I saw the hummingbird. “That thing will never survive the month of November much less the entire Christmas season.”

“I’ll put it up high,” she said. “The cats won’t even notice it.”
“They’re cats!” I reminded her needlessly. “Height is not a problem for them. They can scale full-sized fir trees. A seven-foot pine tree won’t even slow them down.”

“I’m not worried,” Julie said. “It’s clear glass. They won’t even notice it. It’s the colorful ornaments that catch their attention. I’ll wire it to the branch so they won’t be able to knock it off.”

“They won’t need to knock it off in order to destroy it,” I said. “One swipe at that beak and it will break right off.”

“When that happens, we’ll pretend it’s a sparrow,” Julie said. “Or maybe a house finch.”

As it turned out, Julie was right. We still have the glass hummingbird. Its beak has survived for 17 years. Sadly, the shop we bought it from closed down several years ago, another Christmastime casualty. The delicate little hummingbird ornament has outlived the brick-and-mortar shop that sold it to us.

From 1995 to 2004, Julie and I lived in Placerville. Our house was located just a few parcels away from a Christmas tree lot called The Ardencable Forest, owned by a married couple named Norm and Dottie. We saw Norm and Dottie now and then at the community mailbox and the local grocery store. But our only regular interaction with them came every year at Christmas when we drove the few hundred feet from our house to theirs in order to purchase a Christmas tree. Ardencable Forest was a cut-it-yourself Christmas tree operation. When you arrived at the farm, Norm would hand you a long-handled saw. After that, you were free to wander through the acreage looking for a tree that suited you. When you found a tree you liked, you would cut it down yourself and then call out for Trevor, Norm and Dottie’s grandson. He would ride down on a little four-wheel ATV and haul the tree back up to the couple’s front yard.

I think it was on the day after Thanksgiving in the year 2003 that Julie and I arrived at Ardencable only to be told by Dottie that her beloved husband Norm had died of a heart attack the previous weekend. This was a shock to us. Norm was an active guy and only about 70 years old. Dottie was so distraught that she hadn’t planned on opening the Christmas tree farm that year. But the operation of the Ardencable Forest was a family tradition. Every weekend during the Christmas season, Norm and Dottie’s children would show up at Ardencable with their spouses and their own children and help with the work. They cut trees for those who didn’t want to do it themselves. They wrapped the trees in nets and tied them to the tops of cars. They served cider and other treats to the holiday visitors and performed various other tasks around the place. And so, just a few days after Norm’s funeral, the whole family was present at the farm to make sure that Norm’s beloved operation was open for business as usual.

After hearing the shocking news about Norm’s death, Julie and I grabbed our saw and wandered out to find a Christmas tree. Normally we bought a fairly small tree, but because we thought it might help Dottie out financially, we decided that we would buy the biggest tree we could possibly fit into our house. We wandered for nearly an hour before finding a tree that looked like it just might possibly be able to fit through our front door. We sawed it down and then signaled to Trevor that we were ready for him to haul it away for us. When we arrived back at the nerve center of the Ardencable operation – Dottie’s front yard – Dottie was waiting for us with our tree. She looked over the tree until she found the price tag. It was a piece of paper about the size and thickness of a business card. On it, written in a firm hand, was the number 50. Dottie looked down at the price tag and said, “See that. Norm went out and put the price tags on the trees just a day before he died. It was one of the last things he ever did.” We asked her if we could keep the tag and she tearfully complied with our wish. We took the tree home and, though it was massive, we somehow managed to install it in our living room. After decorating the tree with all the usual ornaments we hung Norm’s price tag near the top of the tree, where it would be visible for all to see. To others it might have seemed kind of tacky to leave the price tag on a Christmas tree, but for us that tag had become a cherished reminder of a kindly neighbor. It has hung on every Christmas tree we have put up since then.

We haven’t been back to Ardencable Forest since we moved to Sacramento in 2004. But every year during the Christmas season, that price tag with the number 50 on it reminds us that life can sometimes be as fragile as…well, the beak of a glass hummingbird.

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