With Heart & Hand: Where Christmas magic lives on Elm Street

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Kathy Hamel, proprietor of With Heart & Hand gift shop on Elm Street. Photo/Constance Cherise

MANCHESTER, NH — I am a shameless Christmas fanatic. The first weekend after Halloween my Christmas tree is assembled and illuminated. Years ago, when my nieces were still little girls, our tradition was a day at Auntie’s place, decorating the Christmas tree, complete with comfy clothes, Pupu platter for four, and A Christmas Story playing in the background. My loyalties runs so deep, that I traditionally drive around the complex ensuring my tree is up first, saluting all others who quickly follow suit.  

I am unable to understand those who groan and grumble when the Christmas decorations come out earlier each year while I am pirouetting through the aisles. The longer my tree is lit, the more Elf (which I can proudly quote line by line) Christmas Vacation, Rankin Bass and other favored classic Christmas movies repeat, the more Christmas carols, cookies and treats, the more outdoor Christmas décor I drive past –  essentially the more Christmas anything – the more joyous my inner child becomes. So, as the season approaches, there was no question that I would write an article related to the most wonderful time of the year.

Recently, I found myself with an unexpected day off.  Having already traveled to my cancelled destination in Manchester, I decided to polish an article or two in the office. After a grumbling belly alerted me to the fact that I skipped breakfast, a thought of a mind-clearing trip down Elm Street with aim of revisiting With Heart & Hand.

Years prior, while taking a walk in an attempt to familiarize myself with the city, I first came upon With Heart & Hand.  Curious to find a country-charm facade surrounded by tattoo parlors and eclectic restaurants, the juxtaposition of its location was too intriguing to ignore. I walked in the front door and immediately paused, absorbing the imagery. The two-level shop is completely staged, utilizing real-life antique furniture as a display for its merchandising, featuring worn wooden doors and cabinets, distressed shelving and tables, tin lamps, dried florals, natural twig wreaths, twinkling lights and more, topped with the sweet scent of dried oranges and cherries. Products were meticulously displayed in alcoves and niches, offering comforting still lifes interwoven within the provincial setting.

Located at 823 Elm St., With Heart & Hand is an enchanting respite from the bustling city streets. Upon crossing the threshold, you are enraptured with the tranquil, transformative environment, and if you don’t turn to see the street scenery in the picture window behind you, all senses are engulfed in this magical world.

I am also a true lover of all things sweet, so during my walk toward the little shop I detoured into Baked, convincing myself that I would purchase a somewhat healthy breakfast wrap. Secretly, Baked has caught my eye each time I’ve been on the hunt for a prime parking spot, so it only made sense to finally check it out, or at least that was my justification. Welcoming staff greeted me with smiles. I reviewed the menu, but the glass-front cases full of cookies and cakes easily garnered my attention.

I knew they would.

After asking about one dessert in particular that caught my eye, an amicable attendant behind the counter, James, clearly aware of my predicament, flashed his dazzling smile and moved in for the sweetest kill, explaining the gluten-free (trust me you won’t notice it) Almond Roll.  A light almond roulade cake filled with almond gelatin whipped cream, topped with chocolate ganache. I deny myself for the moment, vowing to make a decision and stop in on my way back, which I did.

By the way, the Almond Roll was amazing. I’ll be back, quite possibly tomorrow.

I arrive at With Heart & Hand, glad to pull the door open. It’s been 10 years since my last visit and I am genuinely looking forward to seeing if the same magic exists. It does.

Owner and veteran decorator Kathy Hamel is there behind the counter and immediately starts a conversation. Her cordial, easy-going personality matches that of her surroundings. What begins as a friendly greeting morphs into an hour-long exchange.  Unsure of my intention, surrounded by the glow of electric candles and old country charm, the more we converse, the more I think that I may have found my Christmas story.

Hamel began to enhance her eye for design literally across the street at one of Manchester’s most popular stores, McQuade’s Department store (now home to The Bookery) where she rented 500 square feet and opened her own shop within the clothing store. Her best seller was her custom wreaths. Her dear friend, master merchandiser and Manchester native, Ron Brunette, happened upon a display that Hamel offered direction on. Recognizing her flair, Brunette  told Hamel, “You have a great eye. You have to let it out.”

In 1999, Hamel relocated to her own space across the street. Still not fully trusting her innate talent, Hamel initially hired a merchandiser to help set up the store. Unhappy with the results, and finally recognizing her own skill, Hamel set the displays to her own tastes and the store evolved into what it is today.  

“I realized I had a knack when Ron told me. He taught me the principles to perfect my eye when I moved across the street. ” Hamel says, in the middle of constructing a vignette. She steps back and evaluates her progress, her design sense tingling and impeccable eye darting to and fro, already constructing the next arrangement in her mind.  

I had planned a formal interview with Hamel to learn more about her story, and on that morning I received a call from her, letting me know that her assistant decorator met with unfortunate circumstances was unable to be there. Hamel was sympathetic, yet in a bit of a panic.  

Seeing this as an opportunity to indulge my secret desire to be a designer, I swiftly volunteer my services, and spend the next two afternoons by Hamel’s side, discovering her story, sharing laughter and learning a few tricks of the trade while lightly indulging my interest.

“Doing the base is the longest and the hardest. I have nobody to bounce it off of,” Hamel tells me, referring to the front window display.  Happy to be of service, Hamel’s rapid-fire ideas ricochet, to which I add my own spin. She entertains each suggestion, a few of which surprisingly delight her. Our flow came easily and as we brainstormed back and forth, we find that our ideas at times coordinated intuitively and simultaneously. I inquire where she finds her products, and while Hamel does not reveal the secrets of her suppliers, she does divulge one of her sources – the Pennsylvania  Amish Country, a personal favorite destination.

As the vision for the store front window takes shape, Nat King Cole is crooning his iconic Christmas Song via bluetooth, shelving is cleared off and wiped down with a wet cloth, furniture and fixtures are adjusted and replaced, strands of Christmas lights are hung on the tree and a series of trips are made outside by the both of us, reviewing the scene and offering direction and of course, more suggestions.

Night falls and, while Hamel stands outside for a closer inspection of the window, I notice a couple stroll past, casually peeking at the display. Although I cannot hear their words, their glowing smiles and expressive eyes provide immediate feedback, which Hamel takes in and feeds off of, like an energy source.

As she re-enters the shop, her smile solidifies the verdict: The base is complete.

Unfortunately, due to the pending storm that evening and prior commitments, I could only spend a few hours each day with Hamel.  Had circumstances been different, I would have easily and quite happily worked until the wee hours for days on end. (as long as I could take a few trips to Baked.)

I certainly miss the days of Christmastime past with my now-grown nieces. The memories of preparing for the season are genuinely cherished. Although I may not be ready to construct the Christmas windows at Bergdorf’s, connecting with Hamel and having the opportunity to channel my abundant holiday cheer into helping her create a display to be shared with the city just might come in a close second.

But don’t take my word for it. Stop by and enjoy the atmosphere for yourself, enjoy a cup of hot cider – do some shopping – and immerse yourself in the spirit of the season.

With Heart & Hand is located at 823 Elm Street. Regular store hours are Mon. – Wed. 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.; Thurs. and Fri., 10 a.m. to  7 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., with extended hours during the Christmas season, including Christmas Eve from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call ahead to check hours, 603-625-8100.

About the author

Constance Cherise is a classic movie-lover, empowerment coach, foodie, Disco “everything” fanatic, aspiring writer and artist. You can contact her at constance.cherise@gmail.com, and read more of her work here.