(Orville Myers)
IT'S DECEMBER, and the wide display windows in Carol Montana's store are naturally filled with all things Christmas. Santa Clauses come in all shapes and sizes, as do caroling figurines and trees dressed in their ornamental best. The shelves and walls also overflow with holiday-themed merchandise, from singing reindeer to a jolly red-suited starfish, complete with stocking cap.

This is no seasonal display, no temporary theme her store adopts for the holidays. At Kris Kringle of Carmel, Christmas comes every day of the year.

So a visitor browsing the Ocean Avenue shop would be just as likely to find the perfect Christmas ornament in July as on Christmas Eve.

For many retailers, the happiest time of year is also the busiest time.

(Orville Myers)
According to the National Retail Federation, almost 20 percent of total retail industry sales is attributed to holiday spending, although the trade group doesn't track specific stores such as year-round Christmas shops, according to the trade group's director of media relations Kathy Grannis.

Yet that business boost is undeniable fora store that makes Christmas its stock in trade. Fourth-quarter business is always robust, says Montana.

But July - and February and September, for that matter - can also be good months for Christmas. Montana says that's partly because her store caters to tourists' desires to bring home a special memento of their visit to the Monterey Bay. In just a few minutes, store employees can personalize an ornament for a customer by inscribing it with a name, a date or a special message.

"A key component of our business are our personalized ornaments," said Montana. "People like to remember their visit."

What do customers ask for? Names, of course, but also wedding ornaments and titles of events such as the U.S. Open, which brought strong demand for personalized golf-themed ornaments.

(Orville Myers)

Some requests are poignant, as customers seek to memorialize a loved one or significant milestone in their life.

That personal - and personalized - service goes a long way toward bringing in return business, said Montana, and the store ships all over the U.S. and internationally.

Collectibles, too, are vital to the shop's success, and among serious collectors, it's the Steinbach Nutcrackers that attract the most buzz.

The nutcrackers, handcrafted in Germany, have a loyal following, with designs ranging from traditional to licensed likenesses of Mickey Mouse and Darth Vader. An annual signing event, this year featuring sixth-generation family craftsman Karla Steinbach, also brings in business, and those limited edition, signed pieces are available throughout the year, with prices that can approach $500.

So while business does tend to be sluggish in the first quarter as the stream of tourists dwindles to a trickle, the register keeps on ringing at Kris Kringle of Carmel.

The store has become a destination for some visitors, who return every time they're in Carmel.

"Lots of times, we have customers who know each other," said Montana. "We have lots of repeat customers who come back to see us whenever they're in town because they like us, and because they like the merchandise that we carry."

Chris Shoemaker, a Southern California-based writer, producer and syndicated columnist, did a reading for his Christmas story, "The Great Mrs. Claus," at the Carmel shop last year.

(Orville Myers)

In researching venues to promote his book, Shoemaker found no more than "a couple dozen" year-round Christmas stores across the country. What he found in Montana was the perfect ally.

"It's real important when you've got a Christmas story to tell that you find an advocate for that," said Shoemaker, who described Montana's store - and its setting - as the perfect fit. "Carmel's got a very special kind of charm, a storybook quality."

Montana is a former Salinas kindergarten teacher who lived in Germany as a child. She and her husband returned there to honeymoon. In the medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, she fell in love with its charming holiday shops.

"When I came home, I decided I wanted to do that," she said.

(Orville Myers)

Kris Kringle of Carmel opened 27 years ago in the Doud Arcade, and in January moved to a street-facing shop in that same arcade. The move has been good for business, says Montana, because of the increased visibility for the tourists and locals who stroll Carmel's cobbled sidewalks.

"We have seen an increase, moving up to that front location," she said. "Not everyone goes down those hallways." With only 450 square feet of selling space, Montana said she must be selective when it comes to displaying merchandise, but upstairs and downstairs stockrooms - affectionately referred to as "the North and South poles" - help with inventory, and ornaments are kept on pegs for tidy accessibility.

Montana credits a good manager, her husband's savvy business sense, five friendly part-time employees and her own creativity for Kris Kringle of Carmel's longevity.

"Some people say, 'I'd like to open a store - this would be fun,' " said Montana."But you have to know how."

That know-how, she said, consists of meticulous reporting to track sales and merchandising, as well as staying up on current products and trends.

"We look for unusual items to be in our Christmas offerings each year," said Montana. "We go to Atlanta for one of the biggest gift shows in the U.S."

For a Christmas-themed store, competition of sorts comes in many forms, from national big-box retailers who stock up on holiday merchandise - including ornaments and accessories - even before Halloween arrives, to other retail establishments such as supermarkets, drugstores and Internet shops. Montana knows this well enough to recognize that her shop must stand apart from them as market. She strives to stay ahead of the competition, attending several gift shows each year to seek out new and unique lines of merchandise.

Just how unique? There's a furry brown bear, for example, that can serenade you with its own version of "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." A hand-painted ornament demonstrating the ancient Chinese art form of ne'qwa, in which the artist paints the inside of a glass ornament, and animated music boxes reminiscent of toys.

Santas, snowmen and figurines from sought-after holiday lines include Lynn Haney, Jim Shore and the whimsical characters of Patience Brewster. There's a Harley-riding Santa, origami cranes, police car and princess dress ornaments, and everything you'd need to set up a Victorian Christmas village, from the baker and the postman to the clockmaker, carolers, Mrs. Cratchit and the Christmas goose.

A collection of singing animals rims a window shelf, from a maraca-playing Chihuahua to a cat and mouse that read "The Night Before Christmas."

But it's the ornaments, above all, that bring in the business.

"Our bread and butter are personalized ornaments," said Montana, "and people who like to collect." Another year-round holiday store, Holiday Hutch, used to be in Carmel, but its two shops have been closed almost a decade. For several years, Montana and her husband Michael also owned Christmas By the Bay and Christmas Spirit, two Cannery Row stores, which they closed in 2000 and 2002. And while seasonal shops occasionally open for the holidays, these days, Kris Kringle of Carmel seems to be in a category of its own for the region.

"We're the only ones on the Peninsula now," said store manager Vickie Masuda. "There used to be a few others and they are no longer."


WHERE: Doud Arcade on Ocean Avenue, Carmel
HOURS: Open 9:30 a.m. daily, until 5:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.;until 6:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat; until 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. Sun.; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day
PHONE: (831) 625-6020