During the holiday season, a nondescript building in an east Spokane industrial area comes alive with the magic of Christmas.
Old World Christmas, an ornament store founded nearly 40 years ago, remains bustling through mid-December with customers searching for the perfect tree ornament or a special gift for friends and family.
And, customers have an extensive collection of more than 1,500 glass-blown, hand-painted ornaments to choose from – some of which are sold at the company’s outlet store at 4007 E. Main Ave. in Spokane.
The ornament store – one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. – includes traditional designs such as snowflakes, angels or nutcrackers. But, there are also whimsical ornaments fashioned from emojis, unicorns, landmarks and various foods such as hamburgers and hot dogs.
During a recent visit to the Old World Christmas outlet store, Spokane resident Judy Olson chuckled as she held up a scuba diver ornament.
“This is one of the most unusual ones I’ve seen,” she said.
Olson, who has been shopping at Old World Christmas for the past four years, said she enjoys the store because there are ornaments for any occasion or hobby.
“You can just find whatever you want,” she said. “It’s a fun place. The price is right and it makes me happy.”
From Europe to Spokane
Old World Christmas, founded by Tim and Beth Merck in 1979, designs and distributes table top figurines, vintage-style light covers, and nostalgic gift cards – in addition to ornaments.
The Mercks are credited with revitalizing the European-style art of mouth-blown glass ornaments.
Tim Merck, after graduating from the University of Idaho with a degree in European history and international diplomacy, opened an antique importing firm. On one particular buying trip to Germany in the 1970s, the Mercks were searching for an item to boost sales for the antique store and returned to the U.S. with several glass-blown ornaments.
The ornaments were a huge hit with customers and that’s when the couple realized there may be a market for them.
Beth Merck, who has a degree in fine arts from Eastern Washington University, created different color schemes and original designs for the ornaments.
The couple met with families in Germany that had antique ornament molds passed down through generations. The couple also obtained exclusive rights to factories in Germany to make the molds.
The Mercks closed the antique store to focus on operating Old World Christmas full-time, which became a wholesale business supplying ornaments to stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus.
Merck recalls in the 1980s, when the company wasn’t very big, Beth received a call from a woman who requested a catalog and information about the ornaments. The woman turned out to be Nancy Clarke, former chief florist of the White House.
“We sent a catalog and they ended up placing huge orders from us,” said Merck. “It was great.”
More than $3,000 worth of ornaments from Old World Christmas decorated a tree at the White House in 1985. The Mercks also designed a special ornament for former president George W. Bush in 2004 that depicted a winter scene of the White House with snow covered trees.
The Mercks moved Old World Christmas from Airway Heights to its current location in 1992 and continued to operate a manufacturing facility in Germany until rising costs forced them to relocate it to China in 2000.
Keeping Old World Christmas in Spokane
Four years ago, the couple sold Old World Christmas to Gladstone Investment Corp., a private equity firm. Gladstone partnered with current Old World Christmas president and CEO Doug Lauer on the transaction, according to a news release.
Merck said it was an emotional decision to sell the company.
“The company was doing extremely well when we sold,” said Merck. “We just felt we had been doing it for so many years. We still love Christmas and miss the company, but at the same time, we thought, we have to get on our lives at some point and we did.”
Merck had a stipulation in the sale agreement: to keep Old World Christmas in Spokane.
“We’re so well established here, it was never even a thought to move it. This is the company’s birthplace,” Merck said. “But, more importantly, we have very dedicated employees that are like family. I didn’t want to disrupt that. Doug and his group understood that immediately.”
Lauer declined to disclose the purchase price of Old World Christmas, but SEC filings in 2014 show Gladstone Investment Corp. invested $24.4 million in the company.
Lauer said the company’s success is directly attributed to the Mercks.
“We bought a really good, healthy, flourishing company where we saw there was opportunity for growth,” said Lauer, adding that the company has opened new accounts and introduced new products. “All of the components that made (Old World Christmas) successful, we’ve kept in place.”
Old World Christmas opens its outlet store in Spokane for two weeks in July and, again, from October to the end of December. The outlet sells ornaments for around $5 each.
“On the third Saturday of October, there was a line from the door to the street,” said Lauer.
Lauer said the outlet store is just a small piece of the overall business.
While the outlet store allows locals to purchase ornaments at “a drastically reduced price,” a vast majority of the company’s business is wholesale through independent retailers, Christmas stores, gift shops, high-end hardware stores and museums, he said.
Old World Christmas, which has sold ornaments through Amazon for more than three years, launched its own website last year to sell ornaments for $10 to $20.
Creating a family tradition
Sooki Carrano, creative director for Old World Christmas, joined the company as Beth Merck’s assistant. Now, she’s designing ornaments.
The ornaments – which take about four to six weeks each to create – begin as a flat, hand-drawn or computer generated design.
The drawing is submitted to the company’s factory in China, where molten glass is mouth-blown into carved molds before a solution of liquid silver is poured inside the mold. The ornaments are then hand-painted, affixed with glitter and distributed in the U.S.
“When you see a flat design turn into a physical object – that is the coolest,” said Carrano. “Every single piece is hand-painted and glittered. It’s very unique. Our goal is to put a lot of details into it to make it extra special.”
More than 150 designs are rotated out of the collection every year for new styles, while some ornaments remain permanent in the line for more than 30 years.
Hot sellers in the collection this season include a sloth, unicorn, narwhal and llama.
“Those four are just killer,” Lauer said. “Another favorite category for customers is the food category.”
There are some customers who have collected around 400 to 500 ornaments, he added.
Lauer said a rewarding aspect of the business is hearing customers’ stories, particularly, in regard to family traditions.
“Not only are we helping to create a tradition and helping to keep a tradition going, we are starting new ones for families,” Lauer said.
Through the company’s website, people can submit design requests for ornaments, which Carrano adds to a list for next year’s ornament line.
The company holds a brainstorming product development session to discuss the list and vote on potential designs at the beginning of the year. Design work for the ornaments typically starts in February and is completed in October, Carrano said.
The company will begin designing its 2020 line next month, she said.
When asked to choose her favorite design among hundreds of ornaments affixed to a wall in the design studio, Carrano pauses and sighs, before pointing to a sparkling white and silver cathedral ornament as one of her favorite creations.
It was the first ornament she designed.
Carrano said she enjoys the creative process in designing ornaments, which become keepsakes for people.
“We are creating these for homes all around the world,” she said. “The thought of people making an emotional connection to them – that’s what inspires me.”
The magic of Christmas remains
Tim Merck, now retired, is spending his free time building a horse ranch for Beth.
“My wife worked so hard with me for 40 years, I decided it’s a way to pay her back,” he said.
As Merck reflects on memories of operating Old World Christmas, he says his family will always enjoy the magic of the holiday season.
“We never tire of Christmas or the ornaments,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful experience. We become very nostalgic for it and for the people, suppliers and customers. It’s great to see (the business) in such good hands and the nicest part is it’s still going strong.”