Wheaton's Dickens of a Christmas celebrates downtown businesses
If buildings could talk, the Little Popcorn Store in downtown Wheaton would have quite the story to tell.
Through several owners and building overhauls, the shop has been through it all in its 90 years of business.
If you go
What: Dickens of a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony and lighted parade
When: Tree lighting at 5:45 p.m. Friday followed by the parade
Where: Tree is in Martin Plaza at the southwest corner Main and Front streets. Parade starts at intersection of Wesley Street and Wheaton Avenue, runs south on Wheaton Avenue, then heads east on Front Street to Cross Street
Info: The event kicks off a monthlong celebration in downtown Wheaton. For more info, visit downtownwheaton.com or call (630) 682-0633
As businesses come and go, and come again, throughout the city, it has remained consistent in what can be described as a covered alleyway between two larger buildings.
The store's present owner, Bill Wakefield, said leaving the tiny location has never crossed his mind.
"It's been here so long, it's really become a landmark," he said. "Besides, it's paid for."
The city's annual Dickens of a Christmas Celebration kickoff will honor the popcorn store and two other longtime businesses this week. Along with the store, Stones Jewelry has been celebrating its 100th year this year and Pennywise Resale shop its 50th. The celebration starts with the tree-lighting ceremony at 5:45 p.m. Friday in downtown.
That will be immediately followed by the always popular lighted holiday parade, which will include floats created by store representatives.
Downtown Wheaton Association Manager Max Williams said the three businesses that have been singled out each exhibit the spirit of being open downtown.
"It comes down to their commitment to the community," he said. "Each of them have really promoted not just their own businesses but the downtown area as a whole."
The night kicks off a holiday season that includes horse carriage rides and visits with Santa throughout December.
For Wakefield and other business owners, it also starts the busy season.
It would be easy to miss the Little Popcorn Store if you were not looking for it. The shop sits tucked away in a four-foot alleyway between a store that sells religious items and a hair salon. Its walls are, in fact, just the brick exteriors of the two buildings.
If more than one customer enters the store, it becomes cramped and they have to remain single file.
Even the popcorn store's address — 111¼ W. Front St. — adds to the its charm.
But along with the accidental customers who happen to run into it while shopping downtown, the store also boasts countless repeat and legacy customers.
Wakefield said one of his favorite things about the shop is hearing from those customers who have shopped there since childhood.
"It's fun to have people who want to tell you those stories," he said.
Wakefield estimates that he goes through eight tons of popcorn per year. He did not have his annual sales handy, but he did say that during a busy stretch, he could sell up to $1,000 a day of the popcorn, which comes in four sizes, and candy.
The money goes into a muffin tin that has been around decades and serves as a cash register.
The popcorn operation is nothing spectacular. Wakefield loads a popcorn popper with one-third cup of vegetable oil, one-eighth of a teaspoon of salt and nearly a cup of popcorn kernels. A salter sits next to the popcorn popper, giving customers a chance to add more salt if desired. But that's the only variety available.
Exactly how long Wakefield has headed the store is a mystery even to him, but his best guess was 35 years, although, "I've been saying that number for a couple of years now."
But what is clear, is that he has been around for all 28 of the Dickens of a Christmas celebrations. He said it has grown tremendously over time and it's very family-oriented.
"It's just a lot of little kids and families, and the kids are all excited," Wakefield said. "They love it. It's real positive. It's real nice."
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