As you walk past the classic red telephone booth, down the festively decorated, cobblestone-covered main street, you stroll past Saint James Theatre, Fezziwigs Warehouse, and Campbell’s of Breadelbane’s Tartans before stopping in Fagin’s Clothier and Draper to see their collection of hats, which includes bowlers, top hats, bonnets, and even bobby helmets. Upon entering back onto the street, you are able to peer into the parlors of various houses, which are on full display for the holidays. This isn’t a journey through Victorian-era London. It’s the scene that greets you at the Visitors’ Center of Byers’ Choice Ltd., a family-owned manufacturer of holiday collectibles and decorations headquartered in the Philadelphia suburb of Chalfont, Pennsylvania. Incorporated in 1981, Byers’ Choice now sells its products, including its distinctive, world-renowned Carolers, in thousands of stores across the country, on its website, and in the Gift Emporium at its Visitors’ Center.
One needs to go back decades, however, to get a true understanding of the old-fashioned success that is Byers’ Choice. “This all started as a hobby,” owner Joyce Byers remembers. “During one holiday season in the mid-sixties, I saw that everybody was into having silver foil trees and blue lights, which I felt weren’t very Christmassy. I grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which was very Pennsylvania Dutch—lots of cookies and live trees, and old-fashioned in many respects. I wanted to return to that type of Christmas for my family.”
An aspiring artist with a background in fashion design, Joyce had the creativity, skill, and motive to make something both crafty and Christmassy—and, as it turns out, special. “One of my favorite parts about the holiday growing up was singing carols. So I decided to start making caroling figurines,” she continues. “That first year, I just made them for myself. My family saw them and thought they were cute. So, the next year, I made each of my kids a set for Christmas.”
At that time, a family friend saw the Carolers and urged her to sell them at the local Woman’s Exchange, which were popular consignment shops at the time. Sure enough, they were well received. Within a year, Joyce was selling the Carolers to Federation of Woman’s Exchanges across the country. She continued selling them there, as well as at craft fairs, year after year, and even got her family involved with producing the Carolers every autumn so they could be sold at stores and given as gifts to friends and family for the holidays. Her husband, Bob, also started taking them to area gift shops to be sold. “One thing led to another, and before long, I was selling thousands of
them!” Joyce says.
And a family business was created. Joyce and Bob started it at home (with Bob turning the garage into a workshop) and hired their first employee in 1978. They also ran the business with the help of their two sons, Jeff and Bob Jr. “This got going when my kids were very little, and they helped all along the way,” Joyce says. “They had to learn how to wrap the Carolers, and in high school, they even had their friends bending wires to help us create the frames of the bodies.” Today, the sons help run the business, and Joyce is still heavily involved in the day-to-day production of the Carolers, remaining a driving force behind each new design What is it that makes Byers’ Choice Carolers so appealing to so many? Joyce believes it all comes down to how they’re made—or, more accurately, how they’ve always been made. “Almost everything today in the gift industry is made overseas, so those gifts all have to look exactly alike. What keeps us unique is that the handcrafting speaks to people. People can feel that handcrafted tradition in a Byers’ Choice product.
“The Carolers are all completely made by hand here in Chalfont,” she explains. “We hire a lot of people who study hard and who just really like to work with their hands, which you don’t find too often anymore. But we really enjoy it and value it here.” Working by hand is a requirement since, for the most part, the Carolers are assembled the same way they were when she first started: the head is made out of air-dried clay, and the body is formed with a coat hanger padded out with tissue paper (which was newsprint when Joyce first started) and dressed in fabric.
You can’t rush quality craftsmanship like this, which means a lot of planning goes into their craft. From start to finish, it takes almost two weeks to complete a Caroler, which includes ample time to allow the figures to dry. However, as Joyce notes, “We usually start planning almost a year ahead. We make the early prototypes for the collectible shows that start in the first week of January. So, really, we have to know what we’re going to do for the following year in November and December.”
The company produces hundreds of thousands of Carolers each year and also changes its line of Carolers annually, making only one hundred of each to ensure stores. This includes making custom Carolers, as Joyce explains: “We work with places like the Art Institute of Chicago, for whom we made artist Carolers like Renoir and Monet.
We’ve made Nutcracker Carolers. We also do historical figures, such as Thomas Jefferson, for groups such as Colonial Williamsburg. Anything people can think of that’s reasonable, we’re willing to give it a try. In fact, for the past several years, we’ve also had days here when people can come in and design their own caroling figures, and our employees help dress the Carolers. The customers love it!”
Another feature the customers love is the Christmas Museum. Byers’ Choice is open to the public year-round and welcomes over 70,000 people annually, so if you want a taste of the holiday season (including Christmas music) any time of year, you’ll find it here. In addition to the London-inspired main street, you can enter individual rooms decorated for the holidays, with Christmas trees, fireplaces, and, of course, Carolers abounding. The museum also leads you through a slew of Christmas displays, with hundreds of Carolers celebrating the holidays in various Victorian-style scenes, as well as a Nativity Room, an elegant museum-style niche that exhibits many Christmas traditions from around the world. A perennial favorite in the museum is the Observation Deck, which allows visitors to actually watch the Carolers being made by Byers’ Choice employees during weekdays. You’ll enjoy ending your Christmas Museum experience by visiting the Gift Emporium, a holiday shopping paradise with thousands of gift possibilities—including Carolers, but also other traditional holiday products they produce, such as handmade Kindles (six-inch bendable figurines), ornaments, advent calendars, and gingerbread houses.
And what could create more of an old-fashioned holiday vibe than Dickens? Besides their countless Dickensian Carolers, Byers’ Choice heightens the holiday experience by welcoming Gerald Dickens—Charles’ great-great-grandson—to their building to perform his one-man version of A Christmas Carol. Joyce says that Gerald has been a welcome sight to visitors for over a decade. “We get several thousand people here every year for his performance, and many of them are return customers,” she says. “People really enjoy it!”
However, Byers’ Choice Carolers aren’t limited to the holidays. For example, in an election year, you could find a “Santa for President” Caroler. In addition, as the calendar progresses, so do the Caroler offerings at Byers’ Choice: they have leprechauns, Irish Santas, and spring-and Easter-oriented items in the spring; and items like the popular Beach Santas over the summer and Halloween-and Thanksgiving-themed Carolers in the fall.
If you visit their Chalfont headquarters during the warmer months, you’re in for a treat. Vibrant flowers and lush greenery abound on their tree-lined campus, which boasts a lovely English-style sunken garden and joyous sculptures of children playing, among other features. They also host events throughout the year to support local artisans. “It’s another opportunity to help people appreciate handcrafts and help support fellow artisans,” Joyce says. The desire to help others is no surprise to anyone familiar with the company, as it values giving back. For over thirty years, they’ve donated 20 percent of all their profits to hundreds of charitable causes in their community and worldwide. “We wanted to give back to the community, so we started the Byers Foundation to spread our giving over the years,” Joyce states. “It’s very diverse.”
Diverse is an apt word to describe the overall experience at Byers’ Choice, as there’s something for everyone when you visit. “Overall, I think visitors come away from it with their own experience,” Joyce reasons. “It’s kind of funny: we’ll sometimes greet visitors at the door, and a husband will say, ‘She made me come here.’ You can just tell he wants to be anywhere but Byers’ Choice, and yet he’ll come out with a smile on his face, saying he didn’t realize how much actually went into the product, and leave feeling happy about the whole visit. Some people will stand on the Observation Deck and watch the Carolers being made for a long time and find that fascinating, and some people like the Nativity Room and will spend a lot of time in there. Different people like different aspects of it.”
Years after starting her simple quest to recreate an old-fashioned Christmas for her family, Joyce Byers is still “mystified” by how Byers’ Choice Ltd. has grown into the business it is. It’s a validation that many people share the same vision she did all those years ago for a more traditional holiday experience, a credit to her family’s dedication to handcraftsmanship, and a testimony to the personal connections the company fosters with its customers. And the Byers family is grateful that its gifts have resonated with so many.
“This business has meant everything to us in many respects,” Joyce shares. “It’s given us many opportunities to get to know people that we never would have met otherwise. We get so many wonderful letters, and we’ve met thousands of wonderful people along the way. It’s allowed us to visit and to help so many people across the world. It’s been completely amazing to us.”
For more info, visit byerschoice.com.