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Made in the USA

A former IT specialist shifts gears with Christmas village keepsakes.

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What's the most American holiday? Not the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. Consider Christmas. If the business of America is business, it's the fourth quarter of the year that makes or breaks retailers.

But a spot check of stores' holiday shelves this season reveals you'd be hard pressed to find things actually manufactured in the United States. At a West Broad Street Lowe's, decorative sales items were manufactured in China, Japan and Indonesia.

But made in the USA? Zilch.

Meet Glenn Crider, 58, a Mechanicsville entrepreneur. His Ginger Cottages ornaments, produced by his company, T.R.C. Designs, an acronym for three ring circus, are designed, die-cut and hand-assembled locally. And while the 3-by-3-by-3-inch model buildings are fashioned in simple birch plywood, a material used in high-end cabinet facings, they possess remarkable architectural and decorative detail — with a festive sprinkling of glitter.

This season, sales of the keepsake tree ornaments have shot up exponentially making this a game changing year for the former information technology specialist who left his job five years ago with a Richmond nonprofit organization to develop decidedly more high-touch aspects of his inner self.

"I've forever been an artist," says Crider, who reveals a personality that is equal parts aw shucks and penetratingly philosophical, as he ushers a visitor through the clinically spotless T.R.C. operation just across the Hanover County line in King William County. Recent designs include a Santa's Sleigh Station with gas pumps, an Outer Banks cottage with steep front steps, and a smokehouse with tiny hams curing on spits.

Demand keeps growing for the cottages which retail for about $20. One major customer, Richmond's Westbury Gallery, which ordered $450 worth of merchandise last year, placed a $4,500 order earlier this season. Other major outlets include nationally-known Christmas retailers Yankee Candle, Bronners in Michigan and the Christmas Shop and the Island Gallery in Manteo, N.C. But the biggest challenge occurred earlier this year when national restaurant and retail chain, Cracker Barrel, ordered 30,000 cottages. The question of whether T.R.C. could deliver was answered in August when 50 pallets of merchandise were shipped out on two tractor trailers bound for Tennessee.

If Faberge's medium had been plywood, and if he'd utilized T.R.C.'s 10 laser cutting computers, these cottages might have resulted. The computers are visible through a T.R.C. reception room picture window as a technician continually feeds thin sheets of plywood to be stamped out into the component parts Crider has designed — flat walls, flooring and roof tops. Smaller pieces become interior furnishings — mantles, tables or tiny human figures. A small hole is cut in the bottom of each ornament where a small light can be inserted to illuminate visual surprises awaiting inside. The pieces appear delicate, but are extremely sturdy after being glued by one of 32 assemblers who work at their homes and at their own pace.

With only three full-time employees at the King William plant, Crider says, "Everybody wears a lot of hats."  Pam Mann, who has worked with Crider for 12 years, carries the honorific title of Head Elf.

Glenn Crider grew up in Lakeside and graduated from Hermitage High School where he excelled in mechanical drawing. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University and J. S. Reynolds Community College but credits a few individuals as "hugely influential" in his development as a craftsman and business person. Most important is his grandmother, Olive Crider, who lived on a tobacco farm in Pittsylvania County. "She taught me to enjoy the simple things and to do things the right way," he says.

An antique grandfather clock was left him with the understanding that it was his if he got it repaired. He took the clock to Tuck Thompson, an Ashland jeweler, where he was soon apprenticed at no pay. Here he mastered working with the watchmakers' lathe. "I could put things together and began to make little wooden toys with German precision," he says.

While working another high school job at a Ukrop's Super Market, Crider says Bobby Ukrop, a company executive, taught him the golden rule. "But I now adhere to the platinum rule: Do unto others as they would have you treat them."

During the late 1970s into the '80s, Crider says his stars aligned.

He and his wife, Diana, were selling his wooden toys at a Regency Square crafts fair when a customer asked if he could produce a nutcracker for her dollhouse. "The light bulb went off," he says. "The technology in watch-making is the same as making nutcrackers." So he taught himself how to make nutcrackers, adding that "there were no nutcracker makers in the Western Hemisphere." The following year at the Bizarre Bazaar, he sold all of the 30 nutcrackers he had made. Word got out: In 2008, the United States Postal Service commissioned him to design four nutcrackers — a drummer, a king, a guard and a Santa — which were featured on the official holiday stamp. Crider's original drawings are now in the Smithsonian.

"He's half artist and half computer geek," says Bill Greer, T.R.C. marketing manager who oversees 22 salespeople nationally and the company's products, which include simpler die-cut ornaments in addition to the cottages. "But things don't just sell themselves," Greer says. Instead of calling the company's products Christmas ornaments, he suggests they be considered keepsakes.

As Crider reflects on the booming sales, he is optimistic about the future. "Since I'm self-taught and not trained, there are no limits. We're taking this laser technology and going places where no one else has gone."

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