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Christmas in July -- and every other month too

The sprawling Bronner's emporium in Michigan maintains an all-seasons yuletide policy.

December 20, 2009|By Jay Jones

Reporting from Frankenmuth, Mich. — Wearing a white shirt, a tie decorated with holiday lights and a bright red blazer, Wayne Bronner greets a visitor outside his office without the customary "hello" or even "good morning."

"Happy 196th day before Christmas," Bronner says cheerily on a sunny day in June. I don't do the math, but I correctly assume that -- as president and chief executive of the world's largest Christmas store -- he has.

I'm glad for the opportunity to sit down after meandering through -- and getting lost in -- the gargantuan Bronner's Christmas Wonderland. It takes about an hour to drive here from Detroit's northern suburbs, and it takes -- or at least seems to take -- about the same amount of time to walk from one end of the store to the other.

With more than two acres of floor space and aisle after aisle of trees -- 350 in all -- brimming with every ornament imaginable and then some, Bronner's calls itself the "World's Largest Christmas Store."

In Frankenmuth, a touristy, German-themed town, Bronner's is the largest attraction. More than 2 million people a year come by car and bus to wander and wonder. And, of course, to shop.

On arrival, visitors are greeted with a map displaying the store's 16 sections. Nutcrackers are in Section 5, stockings in 8, and lights in 15. The inviting aroma comes from Section 11, where the Season's Eatings snack bar serves Christmas cookies year round.

Spokeswoman Lori Libka says Bronner's stocks 50,000 different products. But considering the fact that they often have numerous pieces of a particular product, Libka tells me the actual number of items on the sales floor soars into untold millions.

"I think I'll probably spend a few hundred dollars," says Beth Killoran of Vienna, Va., as she, her 2-year-old son and her mother stop in front of a display of Santa ornaments. After putting a few of them in her already-laden basket, she stops long enough to phone her husband.

"I was just making sure that I wasn't going over a limit that he might think I was supposed to have," she explains with a laugh. For those needing it, there's an ATM in Section 9.

A sign painter by trade, Wally Bronner, Wayne's father, got into the holiday business in the early 1950s when he started selling made-to-order Christmas decorations for display on lampposts and in shop windows. He opened his first retail store in 1954.

"My earliest memories of the store are my father working with the life-size fiberglass nativity," Wayne recalls. "My sisters and brother and myself would play hide-and-go-seek among the nativity set, hiding behind the oxen and the sheep."

As a boy, he says he referred to the figurines of the wise men as the "three wise guys." He didn't make that mistake for long; the family has always emphasized the religious importance of Dec. 25. In its advertising and signage, the store is identified as Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland.

"When you walk in here, there's no doubt to the fact that you're walking into an establishment that holds Christ to be the real reason for Christmas," Wayne explains. "Many businesses -- because of political correctness or whatever -- have steered away from that, [but] we never deviated."

There's plenty to delight a more secular crowd as well.

For dog lovers, images of every breed adorn shiny white spheres. Sports fans can find baseballs, basketballs and bowling balls. Nearly all of the ornaments can be personalized.

Bronner's is open seven days a week, 361 days a year. It's closed on New Year's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas; ([989] 652-9931, www.bronners.com).

Known as "Michigan's Little Bavaria," Frankenmuth features plenty of lodging options and lots of kitschy architecture; even the local fire station looks like something out of "Hansel and Gretel"; ([800] 386-8696, www.frankenmuth.org.

travel@latimes.com

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