Take a sunny, nearly 80-degree December day in the middle of cookie-cutter suburbia. The chances of finding the kind of seasonal magic here that some folks remember from growing up in older and — let's face it — more charming towns up north seem about as remote as me hitting a hole-in-one on the nearby golf course.
Until Fred Akers pushes the button to open his garage door.
Then you find an old-fashioned Christmas village with 14 storefronts, including a movie theater, barber shop and bakery. There's also a church, a Christmas tree lot and a Buster Brown shoes.
This is no amateur holiday diorama.
Akers is a master custom cabinet designer and builder. He built the village to a little more than one-tenth the size of real life.
The buildings are constructed from plywood. The windows and doors are cut from real glass. Every detail was carefully considered — door hinges are made from jewelry beads, the barber chair is made from a doorstop, the tiny candy bars in the candy shop are fashioned from real candy wrappers folded until they were small enough to fit.
Look through the windows of the movie theater and "A Christmas Story" is playing on the big screen (a 20-inch flat screen television).
Akers, 61, spent 1,500 hours — that's half a year if he worked in eight-hour shifts — on the project since last year. He spent so much time in the garage building it on nights and weekends that his wife took to calling herself the "village widow."
It's all worth it: Her husband's absences from their grandchildren's football and baseball games. The dust that built up in the house because of the construction. And the lines of cars that park in front of their house each night as people walk through the display, now in its second year.
"I watch him work on it all year," said Lois Akers. "So when I get to sit there and watch hundreds of people come through and then I watch him, who is traditionally a very quiet, shy person and he's getting out there and he's the social butterfly … I get to see a different side of him."
What would drive someone to spend all his free time on a Christmas project? After all, Akers already works at least 40 hours a week running his own cabinetry business. He just finished a large job at Legoland and has worked a number of projects at Walt Disney World and the other theme parks.
To understand the answer you have to know a little bit more about Fred Akers. He goes big or goes home — on everything. The Akers' house showcases his talent in nearly every room with a custom kitchen, home theater and game room.
And Christmas has been a passion since his childhood in Youngstown, Ohio. His dad, who died when Akers was just 16, always decorated the house with so many lights the family joked it could be seen from space.
Combine Akers' obsession over detail, love for his craft and devotion to carrying on the family tradition, and you end up with the Christmas village.
Suburbia may take its share of jabs as soul-less growth clogged with commuters. But take a close look at the people here and you'll find it's about as far from soul-less as my lousy golf swing is from landing anywhere near the hole.
The man who poured a lot of sweat into a Christmas display for nothing more in return than the smiles on peoples' faces is a good example.
"I just enjoy listening to people," he said. "The minute they walk in, they say, "I remember that, I remember that."
And that's what Christmas should be about.
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