Thursday, February 22

To John Derian, Christmas began in September

Just before noon on October 5, Richard Morrison was hanging a glass ornament that resembled a head of garlic on a small metal tree. It was one of many trees that had been installed inside a John Derian store in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood, where Mr. Morrison, the floor manager, and his colleagues had been putting up Christmas decorations since September 30.

It was the first time John Derian, 61, had started the holiday season at his store since he started his namesake retail business in New York in 1995.

Mr. Morrison, 36, was one of five employees unpacking and arranging ornaments in the store on Oct. 5, a balmy Thursday. As he hung the ornament, he wiped a streak of glitter from his forehead. “It’s a danger here,” he said of the glitter. Claire Cook, 28, a shop manager who also did decorations, added: “If you work here, you can’t be bothered by glitter.”

Mr. Derian, who owns three stores on East Second Street, not only started the season earlier than ever this year, but also devoted more space than before to holiday decor, transforming a store normally used as a furniture showroom into a festive wonderland. “People don’t buy furniture as Christmas presents,” he said, “so I thought it would be fun to do it here.”

Inside are a dozen trees with hundreds of ornaments, along with garlands; vintage glass garlands; papier-mâché tree toppers; and a giant snowman named Tony that Mr. Derian purchased from an antiques dealer in Rhode Island. He paid about $1,200 for the snowman, he said, adding that if a customer wanted to buy it, he would charge about $2,400.

But on October 5, the day before the Christmas shop opened to the public, it was still in disarray. Around 1 p.m. that afternoon, a young woman wearing a blush-colored athleisure outfit walked in while Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” played.

“We’re not actually open,” Mr Morrison told her, “but feel free to look around. Just be careful!”

A group of angel ornaments in pastel shades of blue and pink hung from copper meat hooks near the register. Cardboard boxes scattered around the store held even more ornaments: pickles, mermaids, artichokes, caviar boxes, corgis, oysters, greens and toadstools were just a few of the designs. Most were made of glass in Poland or Germany. Their prices vary: a small glass peacock ornament costs $32; a large glass dragon costs $352.

As the young woman left the store, her L.L. Bean bag, embroidered with the word “kill,” narrowly missed a peacock.

Mr. Derian said he had about 50,000 ornaments for sale online and in his stores this year. Employees try to keep three examples of each style on display. When ornaments are sold – or broken – they are replaced. Some extras are stored in a courtyard behind the holiday shop for easy access. Others are kept down the block, in a space used for shipping and storage, and in a studio on Chrystie Street where Mr. Derian makes decoupage, a type of cut-and-paste art.

Mr. Derian estimated that a couple of ornaments were broken every day in his stores, but there is no “break it and buy it” rule. “When someone breaks an ornament, we say an angel gets wings,” he added, referring to a line from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Many were destroyed during the store’s October 5 opening. Their shattered remains were thrown into a box that employees called the “cemetery of ornaments.”

“Every now and then you hear a crash and you hope for the best,” said Patrick Dugan, 36, a sales clerk who helps decorate the store.

Near the back of the store, a towering artificial spruce tree dappled with fake snow was adorned with mushroom ornaments of various shapes in colors like red, green, purple, pink and aquamarine. Many employees said the mushroom tree, versions of which have been set up in past years, has become the most popular Christmas display.

Piotr Morawski, whose family business, Morawski Ornaments in Lodz, Poland, has been selling items to Mr. Derian for about a decade, called him “the mushroom guy.”

Mr. Morawski, 29, added: “He loves them.”

Mr. Derian said his passion for mushrooms grew after he began foraging for them in his spare time, adding that he typically used what he found for decoration, not cooking. “You can pick your mushrooms here,” he said of the shop, “without ticks.”

He started selling ornaments 15 years ago because of his love of Christmas, he said, “and it just kept growing and growing.”

The actress Amy Sedaris, a longtime customer and now friend of Mr. Derian, compared the interior of the Christmas store to “the bottom of the ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ bottle.” Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue and another longtime customer, said in an email: “There’s always something surprising, quirky or fun.”

Some people have made a tradition of visiting Mr. Derian’s stores this time of year, he said, and some bring their children. He added that collaborations with Target, for which he recently designed a line of Thanksgiving decorations, have brought him greater visibility. “He turned into something I didn’t expect him to turn into,” he said.

A newer element to Mr. Derian’s holiday display is the rope stanchion he has used on East Second Street to limit the number of customers who can shop at a time. He started using it in 2020, when pandemic restrictions imposed strict capacity limits on stores. But he continued to use the candlestick, he said, because “if you have too many people in it, it’s no fun for anyone.”

Sometimes, especially on weekends in December, a queue forms outside. At first, Mr. Derian said, “I would feel sorry for the line.” But then he began to notice the lines that can form nearby on Lafayette Street, outside the Levain Bakery and the Kith clothing store. “I would go there and there are lines and people are fine,” he said. “It’s a neighborhood of lines.”

Mr. Derian, who grew up in Watertown, Mass., and whose father ran a local supermarket, does not use point-of-sale software in his stores. Prices are written on paper labels and customers are given handwritten receipts. “I’m a creative person running a business, not really a businessman,” he said, adding that since 2022 he has been holding online meetings with a business coach.

It said about a quarter of its stores’ sales were holiday-related. As in years past, she will open some stores for the season, including the Christmas shop, on Sundays, when they are normally closed. Mr. Derian also hired five seasonal workers this year. He employs about 40 people full time and also has stores in the West Village and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

He thought starting the season earlier and converting the furniture showroom into a holiday store would help increase sales, he said, and offer a better shopping experience, in part because he’s using a larger space. “It’s easier to get in and out,” Mr. Derian said.

On October 5, shortly after 2pm, a cloud of smoke appeared in front of the store entrance while employees were preparing the display. Smoke wafted from a bunch of sage leaves lit by Thomas Little, whose company, Urbangreen, has done landscaping and planting work at Mr. Derian’s shops for the past decade.

Mr. Little, 59, said he began each project for Mr. Derian with a healing ritual.

“When you walk into John,” he said, “it’s a sacred thing.”