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Santa Claus sent packing on The Avenue

Merchants association fires St. Nick, hires elves to greet holiday season shoppers

By Larry Perl, lperl@tribune.com

8:24 AM EDT, September 26, 2013

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Santa Claus is out of a job on The Avenue, replaced by a squad of elves.

The Hampden Village Merchants Association voted Sept. 11 not to have anyone play Santa this holiday season, ending a tradition of recent years in which St. Nick, aka handyman Geoffrey Harris, 54, of Remington, strolled West 36th Street to meet and greet shoppers as a promotion for businesses on Hampden's retail corridor.

Instead, the merchants' association voted to hire six "elves," led by Laura Myers, a longtime waitress at the restaurant Rocket to Venus, to perform many of the same duties.

Harris had been paid about $1,700 the past seven years to perform the two weekends before Christmas, but last year, the merchants' group debated whether to keep using him. Harris, who has a whitish beard and eyeglasses, and whose family used to own the store Passion Fish on The Avenue, sat impassively during the 2012 meeting, wearing his Santa hat, as some merchants argued against using him or having a Santa at all.

"As a business owner, it's difficult for me to quantify the benefit of a Santa. It's a lot of money," Sue Caldwell, owner of the store Lovely Yarns, said at the time. "I would like to see the money spent on a new logo" for Hampden merchants.

Lesley Jennings, owner of the store Doubledutch Boutique, said at the time that having Santa was good for business. She said customers told her it made The Avenue "more festive."

The merchants ultimately agreed to retain Harris last Christmas and even raised his pay by more than $5 per hour. He walked The Avenue and Falls Road, visiting stores and posing for photos with children at the store Soft and Cozy Baby.

At the Sept. 11 meeting, however, Harris was sent packing back up the proverbial chimney, and Myers, 43, who came to the meeting dressed in her green and red elf suit, was hired. She and her "elf unit" will be paid $1,680, the amount that Harris would have been paid, had he been retained.

"We're just hiring a squad of elves to run around the neighborhood instead of Santa," said merchants' association president Benn Ray, who told Harris on Sept. 17 that his services would not be needed this December.

He said last year's debate may have soured Santa and that during the holiday season, "The sense was, he wasn't really feeling it."

Harris disagreed.

"I was little disappointed," he said. "I look forward to doing it every year."

Harris said he would continue to be a volunteer Santa at the Hampden Family Center's annual holiday party, as he has done in recent years, and would try to be a paid Santa someplace else.

"I'm going to see if I can find a gig to keep doing Santa," he said.

He was nonplused that elves had been hired instead.

"I don't know what they think they're going to achieve by putting in a gang of elves," he said.

Myers, who worked Hampden, Mount Washington Village and Harbor East as an elf for the national business promotion website Yelp.com in 2011, came to the merchants' meeting to pitch her elf squad idea to the association.

"I knew it would go well," she said.

She was philosophical about winning the job at Santa's expense.

"It was good timing," she said. Still, the absence of Santa was not lost on her.

"We had to branch off and rebel," she said.

Myers, of the Gardenville-Belair-Edison area, said her elf unit will work in teams of two, greeting shoppers as they enter stores, and will have a photographer on hand. She said she will choose people from "a pool of elves" that run in the Rocket to Venus circle of friends, including a singer in a local band, teachers, college students, waiters and a lawyer.

Myers said she isn't self-conscious about being an elf.

"I'm a hardworking customer service person," she said. "I want to help everybody enjoy themselves in life. Why shouldn't they enjoy themselves shopping?"