Descending into Country Noel, which sits below street level on Exchange Street, is an assault on the senses. The air is dense with the smells of mulling spices and pine needles (it's probably just the Yankee Candle display, but it’s pretty damn authentic); chimes and bells tinkle merrily behind lively Christmas tunes; ornaments and decorations blanket every available centimeter — the walls! the ceilings! — all blinking, glistening, and beckoning to the eager holiday shopper.
A claustrophobic’s utopia it isn’t.
But the year-round Christmas store — one of about 100 in the nation — is a haven for kids and kids-at-heart, those people who wait all year for the month or so of extravagance and excess that imbues the modern holiday season.
“This is all about wants, and luxury, and fun things,” says store owner Jean Wright, who opened the store in 1991, and works there seven days a week during the November-December rush. (Surprising fact: She spends so much time at the store during the holidays that her own home is sparsely decorated — just a small Christmas tree, she says, with few embellishments.)
When Wright and her husband (a taller and more stylish Claus couple) decided to try the all-Christmas, all-the-time model, some friends thought they were crazy. Even now, after more than 15 years in business, people doubt the potential longevity of a store that caters to one specific day of the year.
“Almost every day, someone comes in and says, ‘What do you do in July?’” Wright says.
In fact, July is when business starts picking up, Wright says, as tourists and cruise-ship crowds stop in to pick up decorations — like lobster ornaments — that will remind them of Maine long after the summer’s over. Every month thereafter sees more of an increase in customers and sales (the store does put out a rather extravagant Halloween display), until the holiday boom launches in November and December.
Those two months make up at least 25 percent of the store’s annual gross sales, Wright estimates — for obvious reasons, the holiday season “makes or breaks a store,” she says of year-round Christmas retail shops.
With so much riding on their holiday-season retail success, the Country Noel staff goes all out. Each wall is covered with merchandise that ranges from chintzy to sophisticated — wooden ornaments, glass-blown ornaments, locally made ornaments. Nutcrackers, both German and Chinese, and caroling figurines, sit on the shelves. An entire section of the store (plus one staff member) is devoted to miniature village houses and the old-time people and props that go with them.
Does she ever get sick of all this Christmas cheer? Wright says no. “It’s such a happy concept,” she says of the mistletoe merriment. “I enjoy it here, the non-stop helping people.”
But even a Yuletide enthusiast has to draw the line somewhere, and Wright puts her foot down when it comes to holiday tunes: “We only play Christmas music during November and December.” After all, Christmas comes but once a year.