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The Christmas Tree Shops, a homegrown empire of irresistibility

The Christmas Tree Shops location in Bourne, known for its windmill and thatched roof, is one of 10 stores scheduled to close, likely in June, as part of the company's Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Jennette Barnes
The Christmas Tree Shop in Bourne.

When the cousins came to Cape Cod, there were three priorities: the beach, a lobster roll and a trip to the Christmas Tree Shops.

Go ahead and say what you will about tackiness, cheap imports and imitation crafts, but for more than 50 years, Cape Codders and visitors alike depended on the closest “tree” for wrapping paper, Christmas lights, lampshades, beach towels, maple syrup, Cape Cod regalia, rainy-day picture puzzles, or a last-minute birthday gift for that kid across the street. Need yellow paper napkins for a baby shower? Christmas Tree Shops. Looking for an afghan to cheer up the guest room for Aunt Nellie? Christmas Tree Shops. Looking for a holiday wreath – any holiday – well, you get the idea.

And now, it’s over.

The Bilezikian family, which founded the chain on Cape Cod, sold to Bed Bath & Beyond for $200 million in 2003, with hopes the chain would live long and prosper. But in 2020, the apparently struggling stores were sold to Handil Holdings, founded by a Sudbury couple in the greeting card business. They had hoped to revive the Christmas Tree Shops chain, but it was a no-go. All the stores, including the original ones on Cape Cod, will close.

Even given that the stores seem to have lost some of their joie-de-vivre in the last few years, I’m crushed. The Christmas Tree Shops and the clerks in their signature green aprons were more instrumental to my daily life than whales or fried clams or anything else you might associate with Cape Cod. Witness my collection of Christmas Tree Shops nutcrackers – one or two for each of the dozen years my daughters performed in the local ballet. Or how about that never-ending stash of gift bags and tissue paper in my attic? Or allow me to hum for you that ubiquitous jingle, “Don’t you just love a bargain?”

Yes, I do, I do. Or rather, I did.

Full disclosure: I lived a block away from the original store at the corner of Route 6A and Willow Street, which Chuck and Doreen Bilezikian took over in 1970, selling, among the Christmas tree ornaments, goods they bought cheap at the closing of wholesale gift shows.

They took over a small Christmas-themed store and turned it into a homegrown empire of irresistibility. At the time Bed Bath & Beyond bought them out, the local chain's revenue per square foot was double that of the new parent company.

The marketing was brilliant. Let’s face it, most of the shoppers were women, many of them of a certain age who happily left their husbands napping in the parking lot. But no one ever went into the Christmas Tree Shops and came out with only one thing. Yes, you only needed a pack of $1.99 Christmas lights, but oh-my-goodness look at those adorable elf slippers just like the ones in the Saks Fifth Avenue catalog. They will be perfect for the grandkids. And only $4.99!

Also, most of us who lived here knew someone who worked at the Christmas Tree Shops – ringing up sales, stocking shelves, driving the tan and green vans, handling the accounts. It was often a first or last or second job, and often year-round in what was then a more seasonal economy.

You might see this as just the loss of one more discount store – although, I never thought of Christmas Tree Shops as a discount store but more of a knock-off emporium, perfect for when you didn’t want or couldn’t afford the $100 original. Certainly retail has been through rough times, but the other owners never matched the Bilezikians' genius for reading their customers. However, the real estate will live on, since the Cape sites are still under family ownership, so we can only guess what’s next for the world’s largest thatched roof at the Sagamore Bridge. And, the Bilezikian Family Foundation continues to fund local arts and educational institutions.

The real secret sauce of the Christmas Tree Shops was that everybody went there. Many years ago, I was at a Fourth of July party and we ran out of paper goods. Chuck Bilezikian was there. No problem, he said, I have the keys to the shop. He popped down to the corner and came back with a stack of paper plates and saved the day.

But I have no idea how he left that store without grabbing a couple of jars of jam and a red, white and blue wreath.