Despite the seasonal name, the very first store in the Christmas Tree Shops bargain home goods chain wasn’t open around the holiday. It did, however, focus on the season.
The first store called the Christmas Tree Shop was opened in Yarmouth Port in the 1950s by a Cape Cod couple, Mark and Alice Mathews. It offered Christmas-themed items like decorations, ornaments, and small gifts. However, it was only open during July and August (though eventually that season was extended from May to October). At the Christmas Tree Shop, where Route 6A met Willow Street, Christmas was bought well in advance.
That’s according to Doreen Bilezikian, who along with her husband Chuck would buy the store in 1970. With two young sons—Gregory was 4, and Jeffrey was 2—the couple took over the business, and the Boston-area family moved into the apartment upstairs.
Greg Bilezikian recalls the days living above the store fondly. “We grew up in it,” he says. “That was our life. I remember stocking shelves in our pajamas.” (The family wasn’t doing so alone; according to Doreen, the Bilezikians inherited a staff of about 15.)
Under the Bilezikians’ ownership, the Christmas Tree Shop at first remained a seasonal business, open from May through October. But it extended its offerings beyond those suggested by the name and shifted to its bargain household items model, buying up overstock from manufacturers and other discounted products that would in turn be sold at the store on the cheap.
The store also grew in terms of space. The Bilezikians’ property included the ground-level shop and the apartment, as well as a barn. The barn was put into use for penny candy pretty early on in the Bilezikians’ tenure. By the mid-’70s, it was time for the family to move out of the apartment upstairs and into a bigger home. When they did, they put the apartment to use as more retail space.
At that point, between the barn, the front shop, and the upper shop, there were three stores at the one location. The company changed its name from the Christmas Tree Shop to the Christmas Tree Shops to encompass the three. That’s why the company’s name is in the plural form—not, as you may think, because it expanded into further locations.
Expand it did, though. By the end of the 1970s, the company was open year-round. By the early 1980s it had begun opening more locations on Cape and off. Its stores were noted for their unique architecture—the Christmas Tree Shops at the Sagamore Bridge, for example, is housed in a building modeled as a big ol’ barn, complete with a windmill.
The chain kept growing and growing in the region, even developing a catchy slogan. By 2003, when the Bilezikians sold the company to Bed, Bath and Beyond, it had more than 20 stores in New England, including one in New York State. (Bed, Bath and Beyond has brought the brand national, and now operates more than 80 locations.)
Selling the Christmas Tree Shops wasn’t easy for the Bilezikians. “We grew up with strong family bonds, and selling it was like selling a part of who you are,” Greg Bilezikian says.
“It was a very difficult decision,” says his mother Doreen. She says that the next step for the company would have been to go public. “If we were to grow we would have to change the company…and we didn’t want to change it.”
The company sold for about $200 million. Today, the family runs a philanthropy, the Bilezikian Family Foundation, which Greg says his brother Jeff is heavily involved in. The Bilezikians also own and manage commercial real estate in New England.
One Christmas Tree Shops location Bed, Bath and Beyond wasn’t interested in taking on at the time of the sale was that original three-in-one store in Yarmouth Port. And the Bilezikians were unable to find a tenant to rent it out for several years.
In his adult life, Greg Bilezikian has helmed a wholesale company, Dennis East International. It sells the kinds of things that used to be sold at Christmas Tree Shops to independent retailers across the country, he says, as well as about 20 chains. But with the original Christmas Tree Shops property still in his family’s hands, and the town pressuring the family to do something with it, he decided in 2011 to restore the space and give retail a go.
The property is now home to a store owned by Greg Bilezikian called Just Picked Gifts, utilizing all three of the shops on the property. It sells a mix of seasonal decor, small gifts, and other trinkets—coffee mugs, jewelry, posters, things like that. They are sourced separately from the wholesale business, Bilezikian says, and the emphasis is put on local products, local themes, and low price points.
Bilezikian admits nostalgia played a big role in his opening the store—”That was a magical time to be a merchant,” he says of his childhood—but he notes the world of retail has changed since the ‘70s. This thing called the Internet has drastically changed the way companies reach consumers, and Bilezikian says he’s put a lot of effort into building Just Picked’s online shopping experience while still looking to draw people indoors. The challenge of the web, he says, “makes you a stronger retailer.”
As for how business has gone, Bilezikian says the Yarmouth Port location is profitable. While some customers still call it the Christmas Tree Shops, he says, here in year three it’s nowhere near as popular as that first store was at its peak.
Things must be going well enough, though; a second Just Picked opened in August, in Hyannis. The setting? The second Christmas Tree Shops location, another one that Bed, Bath & Beyond opted not to take on when it acquired the once-small business Bilezikian grew up with.