Thursday, March 26, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Christmas Tree Shop

     Several generations of Cape Codders and those who flock there to visit know of the unique holiday-themed series of local stores known as the Christmas Tree Shop. The stores that became a beloved staple of many a weekend morning of running errands. Its roots are all Cape Cod yet over time it expanded and grew so large that it could no longer be considered a ‘mom and pop’ operation. From humble beginnings to a branch on a larger corporation’s tree, this is the story of a Cape Cod treasure.

     What became known as Christmas Tree Shop began as an idea of Charles and Alyce Matthews of Yarmouth Port. In July 1946 33-year-old Charles and 37-year-old Alyce came to the Cape from New York. They purchased a home and a small store at the corner of Willow Street and Route 6A in Yarmouth Port that had previously been a grocery store owned by Harry Davidson. Charles was a 12th generation Cape Codder. His father Albert Matthews, though born in Buffalo, New York, was a direct descendant of the Matthews family that had first come to Cape Cod in 1638. He had kept a summer home in Barnstable.

A postcard of The Christmas Shop
(Sturgis Library)

     After some minor improvements to the shop, including painting both the interior and exterior and adding dark green blinds, it was opened in time for the 1947 summer season and known as the Old Corner Shop. The building was made up originally of two smaller shops, Wayside Shop run by Katherine Gourley of Melrose, and Lavinia’s Window run by Gladys Beasley of Falmouth, both were considered antique shops. The property was more of a compound known collectively as ‘Old Corner.’ There was also the Old Corner Guest House and another small building formerly used for laundry service. The laundry service building was purchased in the summer of 1947 and removed from the property.

     In November 1949 Charles and Alyce Matthews took over the Wayside Shop side of the Old Corner Shop and renamed the store the Christmas Shop. Charles used woodworking talents to repair antiques while Alyce’s training in the arts allowed her to create greeting cards, silver jewelry, and ceramics. Their contributions were soon joined by other local artists works making the store a hit right off the bat.

     In February 1952 another land purchase would change the store’s trajectory. Charles and Alyce bought a neighboring parcel of land containing a barn that they wished to use as part of an expansion of the Christmas Shop. The following month the Christmas Shop officially became known as Christmas Tree Shop running out of the barn with the additional land being used for a parking lot.

After becoming Christmas Tree Shop
(Sturgis Library)

     The larger store allowed the Matthews to expand their inventory to more than 200,000 items. Visitors came from all over the country, Europe and Australia to browse and buy to the tune of more than 75,000 per year by 1955. Alyce Matthews became a leading business woman on Cape Cod, becoming president of the Cape Cod Business and Professional Women’s Club. In 1956 the Christmas Tree Shop’s success allowed the business to remain open year-round, they had been closing for three months after Christmas until then. Its unique appearance inside the barn also made it one of the most photographed businesses on Cape Cod as well.

     Though the Christmas Tree Shop was a success there were troubles ahead. 14-hour days began to weigh on Charles and Alyce. This, coupled with strict Sunday business laws, began to eat away at profits. Business slowed in 1959 and 1960 to the point where involuntary bankruptcy was filed against the couple in June 1961. The property was taken and purchased by Donald Winner of Lawrence in September 1961. Charles and Alyce Matthews were no longer involved in their beloved creation.

     The 1960’s were a time of varying success yet were relatively uneventful for the Christmas Tree Shop. It was only opened during the summer and continued to not be open on Sundays. It was not seen as a hugely promising venture when it was bought by Charles Bilezikian of Newton in 1970. The 33-year old Bilezikian along with his wife Doreen bought the Christmas Tree Shop and began by adding an ‘s’ to Shop. It was hardly the only change. 

     Bilezikian worked endlessly to take the business beyond its original location. Within a few years new locations had opened in West Yarmouth and West Dennis. In November 1975 Bilezikian bought four railroad cars formerly owned by the bankrupt New Haven line and placed them on property he owned along the tracks near downtown Hyannis. This became the backbone of the new Christmas Tree Shops location, part of Christmas Crossing, which opened in mid-1977.

The Sagamore Bridge location.
(Weight Loss
     Bilezikian’s hard work resulted in the purchase of another Cape Cod icon, the Cape Cod Coliseum in May 1984. It would be used to house the Christmas Tree Shops executive offices and warehouse space. This was followed shortly thereafter by a new store at the foot of the Sagamore Bridge complete with the world’s largest thatched roof. More stores followed throughout the 1980’s
including the Christmas Tree Plaza on Rt. 132 as Christmas Tree Shops became a New England and northeast staple for home decor, gift-ware, housewares, food, paper goods, and seasonal products.

Charles and Doreen had overseen the enormous growth of the former seasonal gift shop into a regional powerhouse. It outgrew its original location, and outgrew its warehouse in the former Cape Cod Coliseum. Despite the success they wanted to ensure its existence was safe for years to come. At the turn of the 21st century they made a tough decision to sell.

     In June 2003 the entirety of Christmas Tree Shops, including all 23 stores in 6 states at the time, was purchased by Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. for $200 million. It was a lucrative purchase for the company as in 2002 Christmas Tree Shop’s net sales were in excess of $370 million. Charles and Doreen did stay on with the company keeping some sense of symmetry.

     Today the Christmas Tree Shops business has expanded far beyond the New England borders. In 2013 the franchise created the 'andThat!' branch of the stores for use in non-regional markets. For places unfamiliar with the legacy of Christmas Tree Shops over the previous four decades like Wisconsin, Delaware, Virginia, Michigan, Georgia, and Florida it was a new take on an old staple.

Christmas Tree Shops logo

     From a small corner lot on Willow Street and Route 6A (today the Fresh Picked gift shop) to more than 70 stores in 21 states the original vision of Charles and Alyce Matthews grew to the most well known gift shop on the Cape and then New England thanks to Charles and Doreen Bilezikian. For Cape Codders though the Christmas Tree Shops legacy is far simpler as a place that has always been a go-to for what you needed at the price you wanted.

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

View my previous blog postsIn Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Cape Cod Bank and Trust

Cape Cod Sunsets 2020 Calendar available at Zazzle here: Cape Cod Living Store

Be sure to check out my websiteChristopher

No comments: