For the children of Atlanta, Christmas meant the return of the Pink Pig. Beginning in 1953, the porcine-shaped monorail, grinning and googley-eyed, carried young holiday shoppers over the toy department--and later across the roof--of Rich's, the venerable department store that also hosted the lighting of downtown's biggest tree. "We would see the pig and the tree, and then we would look at their Christmas window display," says Atlanta native Karen Bennett. "It was a family tradition. Everybody went."

Rich's closed in 1991, and the pig trotted off to a mall. Two decades later, Bennett and her business partner, Lisa Welty, moved their home décor company, Woodstock Market, into a former Hobby Lobby building in the Atlanta suburb of Acworth, Georgia. The space was 59,000 square feet and fronted by 88 feet of glass. "When I saw that, I thought we could bring back the tradition," Bennett says. "I said, 'We have got to do a holiday window.'"

Woodstock Market, which employs seven people, rents space to 175 dealers of antiques and new goods, who pay a 10 percent commission on sales. Bennett designed the perimeter to resemble old-fashioned storefronts and reserved 4,000 square feet in the center to sell the Market's own products: unusual and vintage artwork and furniture, which the owners mix with dealer wares and stage as tableaux. "It's like the old general stores, where you can get a little bit of everything," Welty says.

The owners began producing elaborate themed windows five years ago "as a gift to our community, a way of saying thank you for supporting us all year long," Welty says. More practically, the displays also draw traffic from around the region in a period that's projected to generate $575,000, or roughly 20 percent of Woodstock Market's total annual revenue.

When Bennett and Welty unveiled the 2019 windows at an event held on November 8, the public saw the culmination of seven months of planning and seven weeks of hard labor. In September and October, Bennett and Cecile Steinway, one of Woodstock's dealers, spent 1,000 hours hand-carving more than 500 individual pieces out of a 20-foot box truck's worth of polystyrene foam. The pieces range in size from six inches to eight feet. The window is budgeted at $15,000 to $20,000--a big ticket for a small business, but much cheaper than hiring a professional to make the pieces on a CNC machine.

This year's windows depict a wintry world that appears crafted from Lego, including a Main Street with a homeless shelter, an animal shelter, and a food pantry. "We wanted to do something that was about helping your community," Welty says. "But how do you communicate that to a child? Lego was a natural. You build a better world."

From a street ministry to the Grinch

The theme is appropriate: Woodstock Market emerged indirectly from an act of community service. In 1989, Bennett and five college friends launched a street ministry for children in Atlanta's inner city. They ferried in kids on school buses from surrounding housing projects and provided them food and clothing. 

To raise money, Bennett--who had learned woodworking from her father--built furniture. Together with Welty, who worked at the ministry, she sold her goods from a booth in an antiques mall. Eventually, they graduated to their own consignment shop, and one weekend a month, they hosted an outdoor market where local vendors sold vintage and handcrafted products.

In 2012, the partners found their current space with its irresistible vista of glass and, in 2014, produced their first display: a Candy Land Christmas. "We had no idea what we were doing," Bennett says. So they hired a friend of a friend who made props for movies to show them the basics of carving and painting polystyrene. They learned how to use hot knives, sandpaper, and even horse combs to whittle and smooth the foam into desired shapes.

Previous windows have riffed on holiday movies or TV specials, like the Grinch or Rudolph and the Island of Misfit Toys. When the display comes down on January 1, the owners typically donate it to a children's cancer ward or a theater or dance group.

As the displays have grown more elaborate, word has spread and the crowds have grown larger. "I know we are not Macy's. I know we are not Rich's," Bennett says. "But for our little section of Georgia, it is a pretty big deal."

The back room: Claude Fountain, a dealer, prepares to lug Santa's workshop out of a storage area that the owners recently designated as construction central after years of renting an outside warehouse for that purpose. Bennett used a ruler, blue tape, and a straight edge to perfectly position every dot on the workshop's roof.

Right sizing: In May or June, Karen Bennett and Cecile Steinway, a dealer, mock up the proposed display in boxes to ensure--among other things--that pieces are to scale. A plan to incorporate these real toys in the window's version of Toys for Tots was rejected when they realized the items would appear too small.

Here comes color: Lisa Welty, a dealer, paints Santa's cap with red latex. She and Woodstock's dealer coordinator start painting as soon as the first figures are carved in September. The foam requires two or three coats. In some years, pieces were still drying when the public got its first glimpse.

A necessary short cut: The owners confess to a single "cheat" this year on their everything-by-hand rule. They asked one of their dealers, a maker of wooden and metal signs, to use a machine to cut out 88 feet worth of white foam "snow" to cover the entire floor. Here, Claude Fountain moves it to the window.

Inventing the wheel: Bennett estimates it would have cost at least $2,000 to have a professional build this Ferris wheel. She carved it freehand from two large slabs of foam, attaching a pencil to a piece of string secured in the middle to get the circles right. A windshield wiper motor installed in the black metal brackets makes it turn.

The vision: After everyone agrees on the window designs as laid out in the boxes, Bennett reproduces them on a computer to guide the build. Occasionally, things change. This year, for example, Snoopy didn't make it. That float was just too big.

The big night:  On the evening of the windows' debut, visitors begin filling the parking lot at 6 p.m. The Market entertains them with activities including face painting, balloon sculptures, music, photos with Santa, a caricaturist, and train rides until 7:15, when it's dark enough to reveal the lighted display in all its glory.

Sneak preview: Of course, some people can't wait.

The moment arrives: Every year the crowd attending the big reveal of Woodstock Market's holiday windows has grown. This year, it attracted around a thousand people. The owners rent several hundred chairs, but for most it's standing room only.

Family fun: The windows are so full of tiny details that visitors must wait patiently for an up-close view. Bennett's background is in children's charities, and kids are her and Welty's most important audience.

A lure for shoppers: Bennett bought extra-large plastic Lego blocks at an auction and used them to frame the windows on the outside. The display is a very big, very important attraction in the critical holiday months, which the owners count on for 20 to 25 percent of annual revenue.

The elves: Woodstock Market's holiday window crew comprises (left to right) co-owners Lisa Welty and Karen Bennett, Cecile Steinway (a dealer), Mari Mogitz (Woodstock's dealer coordinator), and Amy Ahrens (a dealer, inside the train). Bennett and Steinway are the primary creators and do all the carving. The rest paint and sand the foam, among other tasks.

This is Christmas: The final tableau of Woodstock Market's windows includes a Santa float, a six-foot tall Christmas tree with dozens of tiny hand-painted presents and ornaments, and a choir performing on a bridge between the Furry Friends shelter (for animals) and the Open Arms Inn (for people). The figures are racially diverse. Behind the tree a father--his son mounted on his shoulders--scales a ladder to light the star.

Published on: Dec 4, 2019