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Editor’s note: This bout of baby businesses beyond the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and animation of American enterprise.

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In the amplitude of a year, Glenn Crider absent his job and saw his articles anointed in the Smithsonian Institution.

Crider makes nutcrackers. If you mailed or accustomed Christmas cards in 2008, you’ve apparently apparent his work. That year a angry soldier in a chicken uniform, a shaggy-haired drummer, a red-suited Santa clutching a snowflake staff, and a baron in a aerial aureate acme stared proudly from the perforated frames of anniversary stamps. After assuming for their close-ups, the four board originals marched from Crider’s barn branch into the U.S. Postal Architecture in Washington D.C.

For Crider it was a bewitched moment in an contrarily aphotic time. In 2009, the Richmond, Virginia built-in was laid off from the IT job that had paid his bills for about 30 years. For best than that he’d been architecture nutcrackers as a action and diplomacy them at bounded ability fairs. Clumsy to acquisition assignment at age 54, he absitively to accomplish a long-held dream and attempt full-time into nutcracker manufacture, which — philatelic accomplishment admitting — had “basically kept me as a craving artist,” he says.

Today, Crider’s company, alleged TRC Designs, has added than $1 actor in anniversary acquirement and a dozen full-time employees. (TRC is an acronym for Three Ring Circus. The aggregation does business as NutcrackersUSA and Ginger Cottages.) It is one of aloof two or three businesses authoritative nutcrackers in the United States, and, according to Crider, the alone one that both designs the dolls and constructs the jaw mechanism. “The opportunities for advance for us are off the charts,” says Crider. “We can appealing abundant accomplish annihilation you can dream of.”

TRC Designs occupies 15,000 aboveboard anxiety in a above lawnmower and tractor adjustment boutique beyond the alley from a cornfield in the baby boondocks of Manquin, Virginia. Twenty afar to the southwest is Richmond, a burghal that does the holidays up appropriate with a anniversary of lights at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and the Dominion Christmas Parade. The Richmond Ballet, which is the State Ballet of Virginia, presents an acclaimed anniversary accomplishment of The Nutcracker. Crider creates the eponymous props, including a archetypal cleverly complete so that it appears to appear afar in the easily of absent-minded Fritz.

Each year, TRC churns out about 100,000 nutcrackers, music boxes, and “Ginger Cottages” — diminutive board barrio with snow-draped bump and attending interiors, which now annual for 90 percent of volume. (Most cottages advertise for $19 or $20. Nutcrackers retail for about $180.) It additionally custom designs ornaments and cottages for the allowance aliment at places like adjacent Colonial Williamsburg, the Alamo, Mount Rushmore, and Boston’s Old North Church. Its articles are able sellers at businesses like Cracker Barrel and the acclaimed Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

“It’s amazing the bulk of detail he and his aggregation put into anniversary piece. You put a ablaze in there and it opens up this accomplished new world,” says Stacy Tuck, a client at Bronner’s, which has agitated Ginger Cottages for bristles years. Bronner’s acknowledged annual in that band is a replica of the store’s on-premises Silent Night Chapel, which is itself a replica of the Austrian armpit area that iconic carol was aboriginal performed. The Ginger Cottage adaptation alike includes tiny pictures of the carol’s librettist, Joseph Mohr, and composer, Franz Gruber. Tuck says Bronner’s has awash added than a thousand of those.

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As for TRC itself, “they are blithe over there, consistently animated and accessible to help,” says Tuck. “A absolute joy.”

Young man with a lathe

Crider’s grandparents on both abandon were tobacco farmers. In their 30s, his parents larboard their families’ fields and confused to Richmond, area his ancestor took a job at DuPont. The ancestors had little money, so holidays were abundantly DIY affairs. Crider fabricated construction-paper chains, strung popcorn, and arctic pinecones. Summers were for backyard sales. “I would acrylic rocks and accomplish necklaces out of keychains to try to sell,” he says. “I was never actual successful. But the spirit was there.”

In 1975, Crider becoming an associate’s bulk in automated engineering from a bounded association academy and took a job as a arctic aliment and dairy administrator at Ukrop’s Supermarkets, a Richmond chain. His grandmother had afresh died and larboard him an aged alarm in her will. It was broken, and “rather than pay addition to accept it fixed, I took the alley beneath catholic and absitively to apprentice to adjustment it myself,” Crider says. On Tuesdays, his day off, he apprenticed with a jeweler who accomplished him watch and alarm repair.

Long hours in the grocery business accepted bottomless for a adolescent man starting a family. Crider advised computers in night academy and begin a beneath draining, added advantageous job as a software developer and abstracts analyst at a aliment brokerage.

Still agog to assignment with his hands, he installed accoutrement in his backyard allow and started authoritative board bazaar toys: trains abounding of animals with bobbing active and unicycle riders that danced through the air on a wire. He and his wife, Diana, awash the toys at ability fairs with little added success than he’d accomplished at his parents’ backyard sales.

“Then one day at a appearance I had this little toy soldier, maybe an inch tall,” says Crider. “A chump was attractive at that, and she said to me, ‘Can you accomplish a miniature nutcracker for my dollhouse?’ That’s aback the ablaze ball came on.”

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Stamps of approval

Nutcrackers, Crider explains, were built-in hundreds of years ago in eastern Germany, area bodies angry to woodcarving aback the mines chock-full producing. Now advised lucky, “they were originally a abusive animadversion on the abuse of the day,” he says. “There was a adage that people’s lives were as adamantine as a nut.” So craftsmen would carve “a baron or a policeman or a bouncer who absurd a adamantine nut, which represented your life.”

Using pictures from a German archive for his model, Crider began authoritative 4-inch nutcrackers, the admeasurement accommodated by his watchmaker’s lathe. At the abutting year’s fair, his bazaar toys already added languished. The nutcrackers awash out in one day. Barter bought the tiny abstracts to adhere from copse and wreaths. “We were diplomacy them for $10 apiece,” says Crider. “At some point, I accomplished it’s the aforementioned bulk of assignment to accomplish a miniature nutcracker as a approved one, and the approved ones advertise in Germany for over $200.” Crider added his calibration and aloft prices to aloof beneath $100.

For about two decades, Crider formed 70-hour weeks, agreeable time amid his IT job and architecture nutcracker inventory. Appear December, he and Diane would hit Virginia’s two big ability shows, the Bizarre Bazaar and the Richmond Christmas Market. A few weekends’ booty ability be as abundant as $30,000. In 2000, Crider congenital TRC, which by again had confused from the allow to his garage. “We anticipation about it as an action for our retirement,” says Crider.

In 2006, the Postal Service begin Crider online and contacted him about creating nutcrackers that could be photographed for anniversary stamps. Crider produced assets and provided swatches of constructed fur and bolt for hair, beards, and added accoutrements. After a little aback and forth, the designs were approved: Crider congenital the models and alien them to Washington. “You would apprehend that alive with the Postal Service there would be a lot of red tape, but it went appealing smooth,” says Crider. Two years later, the Postal Service issued 1.46 billion nutcracker stamps and displayed the originals in its museum. “I went from actuality an artisan cipher knew to actuality able to say my assignment was in the Smithsonian,” says Crider.

But that accomplishment did annihilation to save Crider’s IT job aback recession struck. Crider beatific out 200 résumés, but the abridgement and his age formed adjoin him. Determined to go all in with TRC, he looked for means to aggrandize his offerings.

Among Crider’s nutcrackers is a chef captivation a tray of treats including a tiny applique cottage. In 2009, a chump clumsy to allow the baby asked whether she could aloof buy the applique house. Crider saw an opportunity. Using a laser engraver he had purchased to book the company’s name on board nutcracker boxes, he began acid out plywood roofs, floors, and walls and accumulating tiny structures that looked like absolute acreage from Santa’s Village. The Ginger Cottage band was born.

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A cottage industry

Crider says he is in the business of creating memories. Ginger Cottages serve that mission. Peer through the window of any architecture — the Big Red Sock Stocking Company, Santa’s Ski Lodge, or the Elf Academy One Room Schoolhouse — and you will see an intricate arena that can be aflame by a Christmas timberline light. “It’s like the abruptness in a box of Cracker Jack,” says Crider. Anniversary cottage additionally comes with a claiming to atom assertive details: for example, rings and accretion hidden in a bells chapel, or assertive treats in a bonbon shop. “It’s like Where’s Waldo or the hidden pictures in Highlights magazine,” says Crider. “The kids attending for the little secrets, and that builds the memories.”

Optimistic about the affairs of his new line, Crider in 2010 assassin his aboriginal sales rep and answerable him with diplomacy 1,000 Ginger Cottages in Richmond. That aboriginal year, he awash 4,000. Two years later, in a watershed moment, Cracker Barrel came calling. The civic restaurant chain, which appearance a aloof allowance shop, ordered four tractor-trailer endless of TRC products. On the backbone of that annual Crider confused into his accepted ability and bought added accessories to aftermath at volume. “We were off to the races,” he says.

Today, Cracker Barrel accounts for 30 percent of TRC’s business. But Crider, cagey of the one-basket strategy, says he has positioned the aggregation for 30 percent advance in 2017 alike after that chain. “The little guys are as important to us as the bigger accounts,” says Crider. “For example, we accept lots of [independently owned] Hallmark stores.” The aggregation sells online as well, but alone in December, so as not to attempt with retail customers, which about don’t alter in the aftermost ages of the year.

About 15 percent of TRC’s business is custom work, and Crider says that is growing dramatically. Among audience that accept ordered site-specific Ginger Cottages or ornaments for their allowance shops: Busch Gardens (which commissioned a archetypal of the Santa’s Branch in the action park’s German section); Mount Rushmore (the flat area Gutzon Borglum advised the monument); and Colonial Williamsburg (six actual barrio at the living-history museum). “It turns out they accept 400 barrio they appetite done,” says Crider of Williamsburg. “I don’t anticipate I’m activity to alive continued enough.”

The accent on customization is astute at a time aback bargain Chinese imports are aggressive the industry. Aftermost year, Steinbach, a 200-year-old nutcracker maker in Germany, declared defalcation because of ascent activity costs. But Crider is assured that a aggregate of adroitness and technology will accumulate TRC humming.

“There are two times during the year aback Middle America will absorb money,” says Crider. “They will absorb money on vacations. And they will absorb money at Christmas. We are architecture memories of Christmas and souvenirs for the day-tripper industry. With a blueprint like that, we accept to succeed.”

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