Christmas has been, for as long as most recall, a really big deal here.
Well before Oglebay Park launched the Festival of Lights in 1985, our parents were decorating our homes extravagantly with those big, multi-colored bulbs wrapped in natural garland surrounding some golden sleigh with a stuffed or plastic Santa positioned in the driver’s seat. So many Wheeling residents participated with the lighting displays, the driving tours then took place on the streets of the Friendly City instead of inside the park high on the hilltop.
There are not as many of us these days here in the Upper Ohio Valley, but we do decorate, too, but now with LED lighting, inflatable Frostys, and waving Santas. Midnight religious services across this Valley have remained consistently wall-to-wall on Christmas Eve, and now the long lines of children waiting to whisper wishes on St. Nick’s lap take place at the Ohio Valley Mall on Saturdays and Sundays instead of inside Cooey-Bentz or in front of the neighborhood Elby’s Big Boy.
It is Christmas, a special time of year highlighted by longtime traditions like the Bethlehem Star, hillsides full of glowing homes, and a downtown district with illuminated lollipop trees and giant-sized ornaments hung high along Main and Market streets. It is also a time of year that has inspired entrepreneurs to dedicate businesses solely to the holiday, and such a practice has been in play in the Wheeling area since the early 1900s thanks to the owner of Imperial Display.
“I really didn’t know all of the history of the Imperial Display Christmas Shop when I decided to start it here, but I did know it was started in the 1950s by the Mendelson family and that people really, really enjoyed it and depended on it every year,” said Cathy Jackson, the proprietor of the Imperial Christmas Shoppe in Center Wheeling. “After the Christmas store became so popular, their Imperial Display business grew into several other shops.
“But when it went away, you knew that the city of Wheeling really lost something that the people here really loved,” she continued. “Probably half of customers today do recall Imperial Display, and some of them even still write checks to Imperial Display.”
Jackson moved to the Wheeling area in 1990 with her husband, a former forest ranger for the state of West Virginia, and after teaching computer science for a few years, she decided in 2003 to get into the same business that once attracted consumers from near and far.
“Imperial Display always had a Christmas shop, and customers always came into our teacher’s store and told us how much they missed it, so that’s why I first started it in the old H&M Building,” explained Jackson, who employs six and opens the shop from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, from 10-5 p.m. on Saturdays, and from Noon until 4 p.m. on Sundays. “And then we moved down here to the store and initially had a lot of the Christmas stuff in the teacher’s store. But then we outgrew that spot.
“When this building became available, we decided to buy that and move into here,” she continued. “I can still remember my husband saying at the time, ‘I thought we were just going to sell some trees.’ But it mushroomed, and it’s been very popular ever since.”
On Saturdays now until that magical day arrives in three weeks, Santa Claus (portrayed by Ron Marple) welcomes children and adults alike at the Imperial Christmas Shoppe with carols a constant in the background and thousands of lights in all corners of the store. It is a passion for many, Jackson explained, and not one that always can be satisfied simply by visiting the warehouse-style stores to the east and west of Wheeling.
“About 10 percent are usually in a rush or a panic because they have been looking for something very particular and haven’t been able to find it anywhere,” she explained. “We do try to stock things like that so we can help out those people, but sometimes it’s not possible because they are searching for something they remembered as a kid, and a lot of times it’s not manufactured anymore.
“I do love Christmas, but this year my daughter is pregnant, so it’s been difficult to get into that usual spirit because I’m so concentrated on her and the baby,” Jackson continued. “But it is a joyous time for everyone here, and I would say about 90 percent of the people who walk in here are in a great mood because of the time of year and what they know they will see here.”
Although such traditions may not be entirely unique to the Upper Ohio Valley, the history of its beginning and continuation falls in the lap of the founder of the original Imperial Display in downtown Wheeling. It glistened, this retail shop did, and every child traveling into the business district knew to peer to the right to see the latest, greatest “WOW!” in Christmas décor.
It was Imperial Display, a chain of stores linked literally along Main Street founded and operated by the Mendelson family for decades dating back to the 1930s, but the business was best known for those Christmas trees and giant-sized displays that immediately opened one’s mind to those “good child” dreams no matter what age a customer may have been. In the middle of the showroom of this slender-but-long shop was an array of artificial saplings, one after another of all sizes and themes, and lining the walls nearby was every ornament that could hang from those limbs.
Lights that blinked, bulbs that rotated, sparkling tinsel in a variety of widths and lengths, and a wide selection of angels and stars for the top were on those shelves, as were bows and garlands and tree stands and cans of spray snow for the windows. Long before the arrival of America’s big-box retailers, Imperial Display was a one-stop shop for residents of the Upper Ohio Valley when it came to Christmas.
“When we started selling the Christmas trees, we started out with the huge ones, but those were scaled down over five years because of what the people wanted. The owners, of course, always paid close attention to what the customers wanted, and they adjusted according to the demand, and at that time everyone was decorating to make their stores look more attractive, so they took advantage of that trend, “said Gael Fincham, a Wheeling resident who began working for the Mendelson family when she was only 15 years old. “That store fascinated everyone from the little kids to the adults. The little ones would run amok in the store every day, and the senior citizens loved to come in, too, because we would carry things that would remind them of their childhoods. They always loved the classic pieces like ornaments, and they loved the bigger Christmas bulbs because, at one time, we were the only place carrying them. All of the nostalgic decorations were there on the shelves for all to see and buy.
“As it progressed over the years, people would tell us that they were there with their grandmother when they were little so it was truly generational,” she said. “It was fascinating, and it was humongous and gigantic, and it was really interesting to be a part of it. I had the chance to design a lot of the displays and to decorate a lot of those Christmas trees, so it’s part of my life that I’ll never forget.”
Isador Mendelson founded the business nearly 90 years ago, Fincham reported, and at the time she was hired, Jack Mendelson had made the decision to join his father in the family business.
“Jack came home from San Francisco, so we started working there really close to the same time,” Fincham said. “And immediately it was a lot of fun to work there because it was all about Christmas all of the time. I’m sure it was the same way for Jack.”
Local consumers agreed, and because of impressive popularity of the Christmas shop, this former employee said, the Mendelsons chose to expand as soon as the first adjacent building became available for purchase. And then they did it again. And again and again. And, yes, again. Then again one more time.
“It all started out with what people will remember as the Christmas store, and it was a business that sold products to all of the department stores in the area so they could decorate the windows and the interiors of those places,” Fincham recalled. “We sold everything that they needed, so that display business was a very, very good business because, back then, every business was decorated for Christmas at this time of year. That’s what people did back then.
“The Christmas store was the first one, and then the second store was the party goods store with the paper plates, the napkins, the tissue decorations, and the big wedding bells for receptions, and as the display business grew larger and larger, so did the inventory,” Fincham recalled. “The third store was the fabric store, and then the craft store, and then, of course, there was the teacher’s store, the children’s shop, and the flower store that also had specialty pots.
“It was a massive run of buildings along Main Street that was originally started in the 1930s by Jack Mendelson’s father and his wife,” she said. “A smart guy, Mr. Mendelson was, and it was ironic that the Christmas store was founded by a Jewish family, but it was such a great business because the display business was very, very popular because department stores and Mom-and-Pop shops were the retail industry. There was no such thing as big-box stores then.”
After Fincham resigned her position at Imperial Display in 1990 to open the Stages Costume Shop, the Mendelson stores remained popular with residents and tourists up until April 7, 1996. It was Easter morning and usually all of the stores were closed on Sundays, but on this holiday the city of Wheeling lost a legendary business when a few of the buildings nearly burned to the ground.
“The fire is one of those things that I have literally pushed out of my mind. It was horrendous. It was sickening. It was horrible, and it was traumatic. It was a real kick in the face for those of us who worked there,” Fincham said. “For many of us, we watched our careers burn away when that fire took place. It wasn’t just some stupid retail job.
“I supported my family by working for that place, and that was the case for a lot of the other people, too,” she said. “And it all went up in a big, giant puff of smoke. It was awful, and it felt like it just sucked the oxygen right out of Main Street.”
Fincham is not certain local residents still miss that ol’ Christmas shop because of the Wal-Marts of the world, but she’s confident that her 27 years at Imperial Display parlayed her into continuing her career in the unique retail industry with Stages. Both businesses normally are most popular at particular periods each year, and then consumer traffic goes slowly the rest of the calendar, but this creative, quirky gal has employed many lessons learned from Isador and his son, Jack.
“It was a lot of fun to be able to help people with their business buying, and I really enjoyed helping people come up with how they were going to decorate their homes that year,” she continued. “At this point, though, for trees and decorations, the big-boxers have taken over the market for those kinds of things unless someone is really crazy into Christmas. If that’s the case these days, then I think that’s where the specialty stores come into play, and we’re lucky enough to still have a few of them in this area. To me, those are the kind of places that have always made Christmas so special here in the Valley.”
(Photos of Imperial Display provided by Gael Fincham; other photos by Steve Novotney)