“Going back about 50 years now, moms and dads and grandparents have decided to spend one of their very scant moments around the holidays, to take their time and drive to little Barrington, New Hampshire, to make the pilgrimage, and spend an hour walking around an old barn, and that is flattering. It is a responsibility we do not take lightly.”
— Garth Svenson, CEO, The Christmas Dove
BARRINGTON, NH — The Christmas Dove spreads the cheer and enchantment of the holiday season year-round. I first visited the store five years ago after a Google search of Christmas venues in New Hampshire. The photos looked almost too promising, so I made the trek, beginning an annual tradition which led me to introduce family and friends to the shop. To this day, I am still stunned by the number of people I run into, that have not heard about the Christmas Dove. Accompanied by its vintage holiday playlist, upon entering guests are enticed into its magical ambiance. No need to leave your cares at the door, as somehow, with no effort, they seem to altogether dissolve. Today, I am meeting with CEO Garth Svenson and head designer Stephanie Dimke.
Barrington native Stephanie Dimke began working for The Christmas Dove when she was16 years old, and for over 20 years she has remained.
“I’m lucky,” Dimke reflects. She has experienced every facet of the business from stocking shelves to standing behind the register. After years of observing designers, Dimke says, “Some of it is innate but some of it you definitely pick up.”
Dimke and I stroll through the store as she explains her design choices and inspiration while my attention darts left, right, up and down, every few seconds stating aloud, “I love this!” Christmas trees set the overall tone and complimentary ornamentation accent the space. But this is not simply ornaments on a pegboard display wall. The Christmas Dove offers an immersive transcendent experience. Each visually-stunning vignette is painstakingly staged, and endless creativity awaits.
“We hope to serve as inspiration. Ideas come from everywhere,” Dimke explains, pointing to social media platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest. Her designs are unexpected elegant works of art. “Even though an acorn is not glamorous, the way we incorporate it and the style of it makes it a more glamorous look. We try to be really careful about the quality of merchandise we have here,” says Dimke. She also points to movies as inspiration, drawing upon the “Frozen” theme. Dimke leads me to a tree decorated in felt ribbon and blue sparkle.
“If you look at it, you’re not going to think it has Elsa and Olaf but it kinda draws on inspiration from the movie … it’s not obvious. You can find and repurpose a lot of things, that automatically starts the wheel spinning,” says Dimke.
The Christmas Dove is not only a store of Christmas decor. Every nook and cranny is chock-full of toys, traditional and offbeat ornaments, battery-operated snow globes, nutcrackers, elaborate gingerbread houses and everything in between. It offers a clever solution for patrons who have limited space — a “wall-tree, a vertically-cut Christmas tree that lays flat against a wall. For those of us who are fans of nostalgia, Fisher-Price, Lite Brites, spinning tin top toys, as well as other novelty items of days past are sure to spark sentimental memories.
You can also meet artists like Robert Lynn Wells, owner of Charcoal Impressions, George Calef who designs wooden carved birds, and Beading by Charlie who fashions Swarovski Crystal jewelry and one-of-a-kind ornaments worthy of high-end boutiques. Smack dab in the middle of the store is an unanticipated multi-purpose room. A theatre with a cinema screen showing classic Christmas films, where photos can be taken with Santa throughout the season.
How does the Christmas Dove fill its 1,600-square-feet of space? “We have different styles but we always put them together so well. Garth and I work really well. He is phenomenal in merchandising. It’s great to have a team and work things out. We don’t just think we are going to do a tree and just going to do a design component, we have other things like collectibles and toys that we can incorporate as well, that’s how you fill it,” Dimke says.
Dimke and I discuss her fortunate stance, where she is able to use her artistry on a daily basis. “It’s fun, that’s one of the best parts of this job,” says Dimke, when you have a passion for something, it shows.” As we continue to discover the store, we come upon my favorite Christmas tree, the one I search for every year. This year, it is “The Breakfast at Tiffany’s” themed tree. An armless mannequin torso is garbed in a black scalloped v-neck sleeveless gown, the lower portion is a Christmas tree bejeweled in turquoise 1837 Tiffany Blue gift boxes, silver-and-black decor, strings of pearls, with illuminated chandelier accents. Yes, chandelier accents that light up. It is as show-stopping as it sounds.
When asked about her top tips for decorating like a pro, Dimke answers, “Lights are super important. Invest in good quality bright lights. Adding ribbon or beaded garland brings everything together. Glass balls are a wonderful way to bring in something new. Don’t be afraid to try different things, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. Mix patterns and color on trees, when you do two layers it’s easier to add other layers”
As Dimke and I continue through the displays, submerged in holiday fantasy, a thought emerges. There must be a lot of memories within these walls, I think to myself. “We want everyone to walk through here and have a good feeling, Dimke goes on to explain, this job is just so special and I think anyone here will tell you it is the people you meet. I think most people don’t get to hear the stories of what makes people tick. That’s what happens in most retail jobs, if you take the time to listen.”
There are a lot of special memories within the walls. Engagements take place at the Christmas Dove, and newborns come for their first visit as a right of passage (I brought my nephew the first year he was born). Some patrons visit to remember a past loved one, and others actually stop visiting due to the overwhelming memories. “I’ve witnessed people come in, make one turn and…tears,” Garth Svenson says. “We better do a good job because this is important. We take it seriously.”
Christmas Dove is a family-owned business. Svenson, son of the former owners, John and Linda Svenson, manages the daily operations. “It’s a family business, we live on the property. When things need to get done we are here. I remember finishing my last bite of turkey and driving stock to New Jersey,” states Svenson. However, it is not only Svenson that runs the business; his two daughters are also willing employees.
“My mother-in-law likes to tell me that my kids someday have to realize that this is not reality, but I like to tell her that I will keep that from them as long as I can! They are 13 and 10 and it’s a joy. My oldest is one of my best employees. The youngest broke the record for selling the most Christmas lights,” says Svenson. After watching the salesperson’s demonstration, Svenson’s daughter, who was eight-years-old at the time, took over for the representative, and… every person who went upstairs came down with lights,” Svenson states with pride.
Originally, a poultry barn, the Christmas Dove was owned by Svenson’s grandfather, who made a name for himself as an honest chicken broker by splitting the difference of his profits among the farmers he worked with. When his parents were out of college they visited a Christmas store in Rockport, Mass., named the Christmas Dove. Convinced by the owner it was a “great” business venture, Svenson’s parent’s rented the poultry barn.
The family completed initial renovations, opening in 1973. The first day, they sold $700 of merchandise, which, in 1973, was sizeable. Then, according to Svenson’s father, they “didn’t have another sale for a month.” They persevered, through the 1980s, expanding in 1988, constructing a large addition facing the main street and in 2001 they added the second-floor, featuring the German marketplace, showcasing genuine German-made pieces, Cuckoo clocks (which generally sell out each time they are in stock), advent calendars, candles, glockenspiels, and a nutcracker house.
But, the main attraction for children and adults alike is the enclosed Christmas village with working train sets. Regardless of age, you simply have to press the button. “People just love it. You look at a toy train and it makes you feel like a kid again. We have people that come just for the trains,” says Svenson. A lover of locomotives, Svenson’s father insisted on them being incorporated into the expansion. A serviceman visits once a week to maintain the attraction.
“They are two halves of a coin,” says Svenson. “Dad wanted a fun place to shop and Mom wanted a beautiful place to shop so when you see Christmas trees that are meticulously themed-out with all the right shades of turquoise, that’s my mom. When you see stuffed bears and trains, that’s my dad.” Svenson’s parents remain overseers of the store, keeping a watchful eye.
Although Svenson grew up in the family business, he had much different plans for his life’s path.
“I wanted nothing to do with it. As a kid you want to make your own way, I went to school in D.C. and wanted to get into the government,” Svenson says. “As a young man working on The Hill, the contact ties are amazing and you can open your door and there is an interview on TV happening right there, in real time.”
Five years into his career, Garth became restless and fate took its course. Coincidentally, during that time, the GM of The Christmas Dove retired.
“My dad suggested I come back and work for the season and that was 20-something years ago,” says Garth. He met his wife, who was designing displays at the store, “…and we’ve been together ever since. I think about all the things I’ve been able to do with my wife and my family and my kids. If I hadn’t made the decision to come back here, that probably wouldn’t have existed,” says Garth.
For those who are longtime guests, The Christmas Dove holds heartfelt engrained memories.
“When you are a kid everything seems better. We are not competing against another store we are competing against childhood memories. When we put the big addition on in ‘88, people felt we ruined the place. My parents were so proud of it. They put in their life savings, they put everything on the line for that addition. People would say, it’s not like it used to be, but memories are touchy things,” says Svenson. Even the bumps on the road are embedded in patrons’ psyches.
“We just put in this new road, for the last ten years I’ve literally heard, ‘you gotta do something about that road, my car is gonna bottom out, it’s like a moonscape,’ so when we repair it someone comes in and says ‘it’s not like it used to be.’ It’s a challenge. You can’t take it personally, you have to take it as a compliment,” Svenson states.
Speaking with Svenson about the creative end of the business, he answers, “You can’t put a store together like this with too many hands on deck. I’ll get an idea, tell Stephanie, and next thing I know, I’m getting texts of pictures of this color and that lighting and it all comes together. It’s a symbiosis, but she would not be lost without me. It’s hard to call it work when you spend 365 days a year playing with Christmas stuff.”
And speaking of symbiosis, a trip to The Christmas Dove is incomplete without an additional trip to two businesses located across the street. The Elfmade Company stocked with whimsical country decor and snappy signage, and of course Calef’s Country Store.
“One of the biggest synergies we have is with Calef’s across the street, we could not have done it alone. That country store has been drawing people to Barrington for 150 years,” says Svenson. Visit Calef’s Country Store and fill your bag with their penny candy, purchase from the pickle barrel, enjoy their homemade cheese and sandwiches, or satisfy your sweet tooth, like me, and end your trip with a milk chocolate cashew turtle. There is plenty to see at both stores and within the triad, a day of immersion is easily spent.
During its busiest season, vehicles park in the surrounding fields as The Christmas Dove hosts guests as far as Australia. “This isn’t the mall, it’s not an aggravated busy. Part of the reason you came is to be part of the hustle and bustle. You are here because you want to be. There is nothing in the store that anybody needs, it’s all stuff you want and you might not know you want it until you see it,” says Svenson.
This holiday season, take a trip to the Christmas Dove in Barrington to experience an enchanting world of wonder and whimsy, worthy of the journey, where you can begin making your own memories.
“People come here with expectations and we have to live up to that. This space — we are very fortunate to have, Svenson says. “It has an effect on people, there is an emotional tie that families have that has been built up over generations now. There are no exterior windows in this place. You can get transported. We leave everything on the floor. The sleight of hand is right in front of you. If you think it’s magical then we’ve done a good job because…it really is magical.”
The Christmas Dove is located at 11 Christmas Lane, Barrington, New Hampshire. Hours are Mon. -Sat., 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.