Monty’s of Provincetown sparkles with dazzling Christmas ornaments, Yuletide nostalgia, and holiday cheer all throughout the year
He grew up poor in a housing project. His father died when he was young, and his mother worked in a factory. He was one of six children at home, and sometimes there wasn’t enough food to go around. Despite the challenges his family faced, he has positive memories. His mother loved Christmas, and on Christmas morning he always woke to gifts and decorations.
Today that little boy is long since grown up, and he has figured out how to spend nearly every day, year round, surrounded by thousands of colorful, sparkling, classic, whimsical—and sometimes just plain silly—Christmas ornaments. He is Fred Schulenburg, a.k.a. Monty, the proprietor of Monty’s on Commercial Street in Provincetown. (His mother, Ruth, who was English, gave him the nickname “Monty,” he says, after Lord Mountbatten, though he can’t say what qualities he might share with the British statesman.)
Women’s clothing and accessories, giftware, and home décor fill the lower level of Monty’s, but it’s all Christmas all the time on the shop’s second floor. The store is open year round except on weekdays in January and February, when he’s off on buying trips.
At 73, Schulenburg is a soft-spoken man with definite ideas about merchandising and style. “Air is money,” he says. “Items need air.” The store takes full advantage of air rights, with hundreds, maybe thousands, of ornaments hanging from a champagne garland-draped ceiling. The entire sales floor fairly shimmers. Schulenburg says he prefers a white background over green garlands and trees because everything is much brighter. And, he adds, hanging ornaments from the ceiling keeps them out of reach of little fingers.
Schulenburg spent his childhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut. After graduating from Bentley College in Boston (now Bentley University in Waltham) in 1965, he worked in accounting, eventually landing at Time Inc., in its Greenwich, Conn., office. He became vice president of finance for Time’s fine art division, called the New York Graphics Society. When he traveled with his sales staff, he says, he tended to listen more to customers than to his salesmen, a habit he maintains to this day. “Customers are the best people to listen to,” he says.
Schulenburg left Time in 1983 to launch his own accounting business and help care for his mother. After his mother died, he wanted a change, he says, and moved to Wellfleet in 1986.
In 1993 he opened Monty’s, which he stocked with Italian pottery, furniture, art, and home décor, highlighting unusual items he had come across in his travels. After a few years he decided to “try a little Christmas” in one corner of the store to see how it would go. The rest, as they say, is history. “Christmas is what I’m known for now,” he says.
Shop Therapy, a store specializing in alternative-lifestyle clothing and merchandise, was next door to Monty’s for many years before the owners moved to larger quarters in 2012. Proprietor Ronny Hazel says he enjoyed working alongside Schulenburg. “We inspired each other,” he says, “despite the fact that our customer bases represent two extremes of the rainbow.” Hazel attributes Schulenburg’s success to “an exceptional work ethic and his artistic nature, not just in the things he buys for his customers but in how he displays them.”
Schulenburg is the sole owner of Monty’s, though his sisters, Karen Allen and Ruth Schulenburg, help out with buying women’s clothing and accessories. Two years ago, Dave Martin joined the team, and Schulenburg is training him to take over the business. Martin, who used to operate a fork lift in Michigan, insists that nothing in his background has prepared him to work with art or retail. But he says he genuinely likes people and is willing to learn from them.
Attention to detail is Schulenburg’s mantra. Asked what he looks for when purchasing products for the shop, he says, “It’s always the same: the colors, the painting, the detail in the faces.” Whether it’s colorful Christopher Radko ornaments, or Foundations angels with faces reminiscent of porcelain dolls, or the slightly lopsided grins on the polka-dotted raku Happy Fish, every piece is richly detailed. Artisans who pay attention to detail get Schulenburg’s attention. For example, the shop owner recently agreed to sell the handmade wreaths of a woman who first stopped in to peruse his current inventory and then created wreaths that echo design elements in his other collections.
Customers entering Monty’s are often visibly stunned at the sheer volume of Christmas items, which range from high-end Christopher Radko pieces—the largest Radko collection in the Northeast, Schulenburg says—to the only-in-Provincetown ornaments of hunky mermen. For 22 years Schulenburg has been designing a Provincetown ornament each year, which Radko produces in a limited edition. This year the ornament is a lighthouse; others have included a ruddy-cheeked Santa emerging from a scallop shell and a decorated Pilgrim Monument. He began this project with a run of 150 pieces and is now up to 500, and they always sell out, he says.
During a visit to the store earlier this year, Sarah Terilli of Providence, visiting Provincetown with her husband, Glen, had a tough time picking out a Radko design, but eventually she settled on a Nutcracker ornament. She said her in-laws got her interested in Radko. “They’re huge collectors,” she says. “When I first saw them, I thought they were beautiful, the detail and the colors. And they do have a great selection here.”
In another corner of the shop, retro TVs in a variety of sizes, complete with rabbit ears on top, play Christmas songs while animated Christmas scenes unfold on the screen—children skate on a frozen pond, Santa and his reindeer soar over mountains, and miniature houses covered in lights sparkle against the snow.
“A family comes in, and they’ll walk over to those televisions,” Martin says. “The kids will notice it first. Then I turn it on, and the father is usually the one with his mouth open. He’s 38 or 40 years old, and he’s acting like he’s 8 years old. That’s why I like working here. You see that transformation when people come in expecting an ordinary store, and they just turn into kids. … I’ve had a couple of people give me a hug or a kiss on the cheek as they’re leaving.”
“Because, you know,” adds Schulenburg, “Christmas is a happy time.”
Monty’s is at 350 Commercial Street in Provincetown. For more information, call 508-364-0805, or visit montysprovincetown.com.
Ellen Albanese is a freelance writer
and editor who lives in Waquoit.