Stocking Up for Christmas? Yule Love Wally Bronner's Massive Michigan Store

updated 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

So you're shopping for a Nativity set. Bronner's CHRISTMAS WONDERLAND in Frankenmuth, Mich., has lots of Nativity sets. More than lots—850 varieties, to be precise. There's a fingernail-size three-piece set (59 cents) and an 11-piece porcelain set ($750). There are sets made of wood, pewter, brass, corn husks, papier-mâché, felt and rubber, sets showing Caucasian, black. Native American or Asian figures, sets nestled in a gourd, a tepee or under a pyramid. For churches, schools, businesses or communities that really want to deck the halls or front lawn, there's Bronner's hand-crafted, life-size, 17-piece Nativity set, which runs $12,950.

Mention Santa suits and you'll get a story from Bronner's Wally Bronner himself. "It was about 10 days before Christmas in 1976, and we get this phone call: 'This is the Duke calling. I understand you have beautiful Santa suits. You pick me out the very best one,' " drawls Wally, doing a creditable imitation of the late John Wayne. So Bronner sent the Duke his very best, which fetched about $400 at the time. (The current Santa selection runs from $62.50 to $635; the beard-and-whiskers set, made from authentic yak hair, costs an additional $230.)

In fact, you can probably find anything that is even faintly Yule-related at Wally Bronner's emporium. With a selling floor approaching the size of two football fields, Bronner's bills itself as the world's largest Christmas store. It also claims to have pioneered the open-year-round concept for Christmas stores.

Bronner's is a sensory overload of lights, trim, decor and gifts. Its inventory runs to 50,000 different items. Each year about 2 million customers shop for everything from 19-cent candy canes to $17,000 Hummel figurines. "We want everyone to feel like guests in here," says Bronner, in his poinsettia-red blazer, green slacks and shoes. Like the other 340 employees, he is wearing a name tag; unlike theirs, his reads simply ORIGINATOR.

Wallace John Bronner, 63, the son of a stonemason and a homemaker, grew up in Frankenmuth (pop. 4,000), a Bavarian-motif tourist town about 90 miles north of Detroit. Wally's start in business came as a boy when he made signs for his Aunt Hattie's grocery store. While still in high school, he ran a sign-painting operation out of the basement of his parents' home, which led to window displays and, in turn, to Christmas decorations. In 1946 he met Irene Pretzer at a Lutheran church picnic. "She had blueberry all over her face from a pie-eating contest," Wally says. "She looked even better when she cleaned up." They were married five years later.

The newlyweds promptly went into business doing Christmas decorating in nearby communities; they also rented the local town hall to display their holiday wares. In 1954 the couple built their own store. "Finally, we had a place where we could keep the merchandise out all year," says Wally, who hated to pack up the unsold stuff after Christmas. "The local people thought we were a little crazy," Irene says. But the snickering stopped when customers began to line up outside Bronner's during the peak selling season (June to December).

"I view Christmas as not just a day for a blast." says Wally, who is a church deacon. "Notice how we spell CHRISTmas at Bronner's. It is important not to lose sight of what that day really means." But what about all the Santas and snowmen, tinsel and toys that crowd Bronner's shelves? Wally considers such items "Lord pleasing," a favorite phrase. "These are beautiful things that the Lord creates to bring joy to people. We try to refrain from the tacky or from things in poor taste."

As for the rewards of the Christmas business, Bronner views that as a private matter between him and the IRS. "We've been successful, but we certainly don't live a millionaire's life," he says. Adds Irene, "Wally works seven days a week, and I do all my own cleaning and cooking."

"I love my job," says Yule Bronner. "When people ask me how many hours I work, I say, 'None' It's all fun." In fact, Christmas is one of only four days in the year (the others: Easter, Thanksgiving and New Year's Day) that Bronner's is closed. That allows the family (Wally and Irene have four grown children, three of whom work in the store, and three grandchildren) to start their holiday with Christmas Eve church services, after which everyone repairs to the Bronners' Bavarian-style, hilltop home for a small buffet and Irene's soft pretzels. After singing carols, they exchange gifts around the tree. "We never get sick of Christmas," Wally says. "Since we practice all year round, we should be good at it."

—Dan Chu, Julie Greenwalt in Frankenmuth

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