It's always fascinating to listen to someone's personal story, or in Christopher's case his life history! All the parts of Christopher James' life add up to a very interesting, creative and intricate story that at times is hard to believe, but the enthusiasm with which he tells it is infectious and draws you in. His narrative puts you on the edge of your seat and as you are listening, you keep hoping for more! So, sit back and enjoy the long and winding road of Christopher James' life!
So Christopher, have you always been creative?
Christopher remembers the turning point in his life when he started on the path to who he is today. At 8 years old (yep 8!), he realized that being poor was no fun and it was going to be up to him to teach himself skills that would make him enough money to lift him up to new heights. One of the most important things about him is that he realized that older people had stories to tell, but more importantly information and life lessons to impart. So, he really started listening to his elders and used their knowledge to fuel his formative years. No after school playing with his friends for him! He set about finding a job as soon as he could, his first being in a flower shop. Again, he was surrounded by older employees that eventually started teaching him the tricks of the trade when the boss was away, using flowers that were left on the flower shop floor. He learned flower arranging, how to make styrofoam sculptures and even landscaping. To this day and many years in between, Christopher used the skills he learned in that florist shop to fuel his creative endeavors. His mantra is you have to go after what you want, because people won't come to you. Life went on and he used all the skills he learned to become a very young entrepreneur, with dreams of grandeur and greatness in his future. In pursuit of that goal, Christopher dropped out of college, finding it frustrating and worthless, instead determined to learn business acumen in the school of hard knocks.
Clearly you're very driven, so what was it like opening your first store at 17?
Christopher is nothing if not resourceful, so he continued to listen and learn from those knowledgeable elders in his life as well as self study. After researching how to create arrangements from pictures in books, he created a line of Valentine's Day arrangements for his first store opening at the tender age of 17! Upon opening the doors, his 7,000 sq. foot store was immediately full to the brim with lines of customers out the door and down the block thanks to his reasonable pricing and a fun clown outfit he wore to deliver orders! He was innovative and constantly thinking outside of the box, utilizing the skills he had learned but tweaking them to make him and his store unique. When he next opened Christopher's Creative Design, Florist & Christmas Shop (say that fast 5 times!), it was important to him to use his success to employ as many people as possible and make a difference in his town. He was inspired to make a big splash at Christmastime by bringing the festive feeling and over the top window display decor of holiday window displays he had seen as a kid in New York to his own store. He would also do a big tree lighting ceremony with carolers, incorporating it with his big family oriented open house where parents and children alike could delight in Christopher's creative decor. He was so successful, he had 48 employees during the holiday season and the registers were humming with all the business he was doing. He really wanted to bring families together and make the traditions of the holidays something they would remember by creating those important forever memories. Christmas was something Christopher cherished because he personally had been collecting for years, so he wanted to pass that same joy and love for the holidays onto his customers.
The holidays and collecting were certainly a big part of your life and career path. What are some of your favorite holiday memories?
Some of his most cherished memories were spending time with his wife Lea. When they were very young, they loved going to antique stores, yard sales and the 5 mile long Brimfield show where the lines were so long that, to quote him, "it looked like you're being sucked out of a vacuum when you went to the other side." They loved stumbling upon "bargain of the century" antiques, like a $20.00 vintage paper mache pumpkin or even a ¢0.10 jointed pumpkin that they once found while shopping in an antique store. As we all know, those are the memories you carry with you for life! Christopher and I both agree that the stories of the "hunt" or the "get" where you found that something that never leaves you are some of the best! Every time you pull that piece out to decorate your home with it, it conjures up that memory and you are right back where you found it so long ago! One time Christopher and Lea scored the haul of the century when they purchased 10 truck loads of old Woolworth's Christmas decorations that had been stored and forgotten in the attic of a storefront for only $60.00! Now that is something you never forget! Christopher was in love with his business, creating with his wife and the success of his endeavors, but then hurricane Jeanne and Frances hit...
Can you talk about some of the setbacks you faced?
A natural disaster like a hurricane can change your life, and hurricane Jeanne and Frances certainly upended things for Christopher and his wife. The hurricanes in Florida in 2004 destroyed their building and with it their business. Christopher was devastated and you can hear the pain in his voice when he realizes his life had changed. Not one to give up, the opportunities that followed for him are quite amazing and again part of Christopher's long and winding road. He has been called the male "Martha Stewart", because of his enthusiasm for the holidays, and has written two very well received books on the Christmas and Halloween holidays since the devastating setback (we carry the "Just Imagine Halloween - Decorating for the Holidays" book at Traditions). He even did a book tour for Barnes and Noble when they carried his book! Just before the hurricane hit, Christopher had been building sets in his store to start producing his own "How to" TV show, where he hoped to show people how to create decorations and decorate their homes for the holidays, and he still hopes to pursue that today. Nothing keeps Christopher down for long, so he made lemonade from the lemons life handed him.
On top of all his other talents, Christopher had always wanted to be a famous singer! He has a renowned singing voice and has written and recorded some of his own songs. Meeting Whitney Houston and Rod Stewart in the process and receiving acclaim from both of them is a definite high point of his life, as it would be for all of us! You get the feeling that there isn't much Christopher can't do, but at his core still burns his love of the holidays. Forging ever onward, he and Lea scraped together what they could and started to create a handcrafted holiday line using all of the antiques they had collected over the years as inspiration. Discovering this new line of collectibles was how we finally met Christopher!
Your love of vintage decorations and pursuit of your dream is so inspiring. Do you remember when we first met?
You can't help but marvel at Christopher and Lea's resilience. In the face of disaster, they decided to pivot and create yet another business that parlayed their love of all things vintage holiday into a business that gives them great joy and brings the same to his fans and collectors. Traditions had carried a line of vintage inspired paper mache pumpkins and figures manufactured by a company called Seasons Gone By for years. We were having a hard time finding them, until one day I stumbled upon Christopher at the Atlanta gift show and almost fell over! I was so thrilled that I had finally found those illusive paper mache pumpkins. Christopher was thrilled too, since he had seen our website and hoped one day to be a part of our artisan created selection. I'm sure he was especially thrilled when he saw the size of our order! We just can't get enough vintage style Halloween at Traditions, so a 20 year relationship with Christopher was born! We are always happy to see the new designs he comes up with. Another big thrill for Christopher and one of his best accomplishments was being persistent enough to secure the rights to a partnership with Beistle, a producer of vintage paper holiday decorations. Christopher was given the rights to the Beistle archives, using styles from 1910-1920 that no one had ever seen. His next goal is to go back to those archives and unearth more treasures that all of us can't wait to see and display in our homes. Because he is the only one licensed to use the Beistle vintage artwork on his designs, his designs are exclusive and highly desired by collectors. Christopher signs and dates every piece he makes as well. These truly will be the collectibles of the future!
Just about the time you started to get ahead, disaster struck again, and then again. Where do you find the drive to keep going?
It was always a highlight of my twice yearly trip to the Atlanta Gift Market to see Christopher and his wife Lea. Their love for each other and for what they did for a living was clearly evident. Lea had always been Christopher's cheerleader, even from the very early age they met, supporting him in all his entrepreneurial endeavors. Later in life, she didn't even mind when he woke her at 3am just to show her something he had created! So, you can only imagine the devastating shock and pain for Christopher when Lea passed away so unexpectedly in 2015. He lost his emotional and professional compass and spiraled for a bit. Right when he started to recover from the loss, it only got worse just 1.5 years later when their only child, Michael, was murdered in Christopher's home while Christopher was away at the Atlanta January gift show. Drawing on his hard learned lessons and the inspiration from his forbearers, Christopher slowly came back to life and began creating yet again. He has a lot of fans and good friends that were there for him with encouragement and love even in his darkest hours. So, now Christopher is back and creating with a new found excitement. He never rests! Nothing is ever good enough, and the creative wheels never stop spinning. He always has new ideas, so there are lots of new things coming in the future. Stay tuned!
I can only say that if you love the limited paper mache buckets that Christopher paints and the vignettes he creates for all of the holidays, you should put yourself on our waitlist. His work arrives sporadically but it is very sought after, so you would want to jump on our website the minute you get an email letting you know that some of his creations have arrived. Christopher lives in Florida, between the rain and the humidity, making the creation of his type of product difficult, there is a very short window of time throughout the year when the weather cooperates, hence the reason for his limited production.
So Christopher, besides everything else you have already told me, tell me some random facts about yourself!
- Hindsight is 20/20! Regrettably, Christopher tells me he passed on an opportunity to work at Disneyland, maintaining the Disney topiaries! He just didn't want to leave his home because he considers himself a 'homebody', and the thought of leaving his family didn't sit well with him. But never fear, those regrets didn't stop him!
- Who would have expected this, well I guess upon rumination it does make sense... Christopher is a treasure hunter! You know, those people that actually take a boat and go diving for buried treasure in the ocean! He learned from an "old lady" pearl diver how to hold his breath and can do that for over 3 minutes at a time! That makes finding buried treasure a lot easier!
- This probably won't surprise you either, but Christopher describes himself as hyper-active, so when his employees were having a hard time remembering his daily shop instructions (he talked too darned fast!), his wife Lea suggested he tape record them each morning so they could listen in a more calm manner.
- Christopher was once a plant sitter (yep, like a dog sitter).
- To this day, Christopher avoids a part of his shop and his home because they remind him too much of either his wife Lea or his deceased son, Michael.
- Christopher was born October 19th, so it stands to reason that he really loves Halloween. Ddon't ask him to choose between Christmas and Halloween though, he just can't decide! Lea however loved Easter and Thanksgiving, so they basically had most of the major holidays covered.
I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Christopher! I didn't get to ask many questions, since once he got on a roll his life story just came flowing out. But, I have a feeling the long and winding road that brought Christopher this far is nowhere close to being a dead end. I think there will be a lot more forks in his road, adding to his rich life history! We all hope to be there every step of the way!