An Elf-Sized Entrepreneurial Effort Taps the Christmas Spirit

With a small-town marketing machine, this Santa pushes his seasonal book to the lofty position of 9,615th-most popular among Christmas children’s books. With the full sales blitz on, the 9,614th-most-popular book better watch out.

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“Santa-ing” has captured a large part of my retirement time this past few months. You know what? It’s fun. Helps me feel eccentric.

Although my joints highly protest nowadays, I truly love winter and the holidays. This is, and I suppose always has been, my favorite season.

Just before retirement more than a year ago, my Christmas activities slowly expanded, starting with some essays about Christmas for the Daily Yonder (here, for example). Perhaps one of my wilder dreams came to fruition when I was asked to be grand marshal of our first Bushnell, Illinois, Festival of Lights Parade in 2015. That December sparked a Christmas renaissance in our small town that seems to be continuing.

Thanks to a widespread volunteer effort and funding from former and present residents of the town, we have a train depot that is well along the way to being renovated. It has a new foundation and floor, restored and replaced windows and siding, and a brand new coat of paint. Hopes are that the interior will be completed in the coming year or so. This will be a beautiful public space. A building across the street is being restored for a restaurant by a family who also started a Jeep rally a couple of years ago. About a year ago, one of our residents started Art of a Social Nature to open ways for people to participate in arts and crafts activities.

For my part, I am with my fellow townsfolk in spirit and occasionally in body, including playing Santa here and elsewhere. My elf-sized publishing company, Then and Now Media, is mainly a hobby. Last year, I self-published a book, Memories of Santa Claus (ranked 9,615 in Amazon’s Christmas Children’s Books, a big seller). It is a series of related short stories set in fictional Holiday Falls, Ohio. These were stories I started to tell my son, Daniel, when he was a child. This slightly crazy old elf kept writing stories for about 15 years, long after Daniel gave up on me. In any event, I like the book.

This year, my Santa-ing has two main activities: 1) readings from my book at church, the senior citizens home in town, at schools; and 2) playing Santa Claus from time to time. Maybe I’m just a crazy old guy from the rural Midwest pursuing a hobby that takes advantage of a long beard, long hair, and my love of writing, with just a touch of performance. That’s fine with me, and it makes me a small (very small) rural businessman, for what that’s worth. And that’s not much. Spreading happiness is worth a lot.

I don’t have the desire or wherewithal to compete with the major publishers or thousands of independent publishers. My approach is to use “take-a-chance marketing.” For example, when my family vacationed in New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada last spring, I seeded a number of bed and breakfasts with copies of the book. I have also left copies at libraries and schools. I even gave a copy to a woman who had locked herself out of her car at a gas station, figuring she could read it while waiting for someone to bring her key. I hope she liked it, or at least gave it to someone who did.

At the beginning of December, I made a swing to suburban Kettering, Ohio, to pay a long overdue thank you by reading to fourth graders at my old elementary school. Next, I did a reading at the Kingsville Public Library way up in Ashtabula County, Ohio, on Lake Erie, almost to Pennsylvania. Why there? I dropped a copy of the book at the bed and breakfast where we stayed last spring, and the innkeeper helped set up the event in a lovely little small town near her place.

Take a chance? Why not? I’ll visit small towns for personal appearances and donate some books to local libraries for their fundraising. That’s the Santa way. A small stipend helps, but isn’t necessary. And who knows? The idea of going back to Northeastern Ohio for some more readings next year is bouncing around. I hope so.

The Bushnell train depot, along the BNSF line from Chicago to Quincy, Illinois, is well on its way to renovation, thanks to volunteers from the Bushnell Citizens Coalition and donations from residents and a past resident of the town. Photo by Debbie Klinedinst

Closer to home, the other day I played Santa Claus at our train depot. It was a different experience from readings before several third- and fourth-grade classes, including our elementary school a few blocks away.

For example, Santa found out a 3-year-old boy wanted Zombie stuff. The surprised look on his mother’s face was priceless. Bicycles were also a popular request that day, thank goodness.

Another really giggly girl wanted a puppy. Or maybe a horse. When I asked if she was ready to take care of cleaning up after a dog, she pointed at her brother and said, “When the dog does it, he’ll clean it up.”

Hmmmm. Who can fathom the minds of children?

That day, the children ranged from 5 days old to 90-plus years, including a few teenagers and Tiger the dog.

Wonder in the eyes and joyful smiles are the common denominators of Santa-ing as a writer and as one of the old man’s helpers.

This eccentric old man loves this new direction in his life. There’s nothing like it, especially when the holiday spirit begins to infuse a whole town and good things keep happening.

Timothy Collins is an independent writer, editor, and consultant and proprietor of Then and Now Media. He is the author of Memories of Santa Claus, published in 2016, and a Christmas short story, Sandbag. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb, where he taught and authored numerous reports, including Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.

 

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