For years, whenever I’d see or read about the famous Made in Pennsylvania products — like Peeps marshmallow chicks, Martin guitars, Slinky, Zippo lighters, Pyrex glassware, Harley Davidson, Gertrude Hawk chocolates and many others — I would always notice Byers’ Choice among them.
Personally, I’ve toured some of the homes of Pennsylvania products — like Utz, Hanover, Herr’s, Yuengling, Crayola and, of course, Hershey — but this week marked my first-ever visit to Byers’ Choice in Chalfont, Pa.
If you think Byers’ Choice is only about those recognizable caroler figurines with tiny open mouths that you see on so many Christmas displays each holiday season, think again. Like me, I think you will be totally impressed with the entire Byers’ Choice experience — it is so worth the 45- to 60-minute trip from Delco to go tour it.
I was lucky enough to be a guest at the Byers’ Choice Ltd Visitor Center by the gracious invitation of Beverly Kapanjie, of Ridley Township, who couldn’t have turned out to be a better guide with more expertise. Beverly is the former owner of Hoffman’s Candle Corner II in Morton, which closed in December 2014. Prior to that, Beverly operated the original Hoffman’s Candle Corner in Prospect Park, founded in 1962 by her late mother, Betty Jane Hoffman, who operated the store for over four decades before turning it entirely over to her daughter.
Although Beverly retired when she closed Hoffman's in 2014, she is an energizer bunny and hasn’t sat still a minute since. Beverly, a pillar of the community, is president and founder of the Ridley Educational Foundation and has been vice president of the Ridley School Board for 12 years. She is fluent in German, teaches piano to almost 40 students and is skilled and successful in about 100 other things that she does!
Beverly was in the business with her mom since 1972. During those years, she and Betty Jane formed a longtime professional relationship and friendship with Joyce Byers, creator and founder of Byers’ Choice; her husband, Bob Byers; and their two sons, Bob and Jeff. Hoffman’s was the No. 1 store in the area to carry the popular Byers’ Choice line of products for a very long time, so Beverly and her mother had many interactions with the Byers, selling their products and collecting the figurines themselves.
Beverly is honestly a Byers’ expert. She has led tours and has spoken to groups at events that were held up at the Byers’ Choice headquarters. Accompanied by my sister-in-law, Marie, we were both so extremely fortunate to have Beverly show us around from one magnificent display to the next.
Visitors to Byers’ Choice Ltd. in Chalfont can experience the joy and wonder of the winter holidays all year round. Even though I just packed away the last of my holiday décor and thought I was on to Valentine’s Day, it was still every bit as thrilling to tour Byers’ Choice as if I had gone on Dec. 1. The spirit and magic of the Christmas season will surely descend upon every visitor in that building, no matter the season.
The tour begins in the Victorian-designed St. James Theatre inside the Visitor Center, where guests watch a short film about Byers’ history and how Joyce came to make those first figurines that started it all, turning a hobby into an unexpected successful career. The three original figurines are on display in the Visitor Center there. What started as Joyce sitting at her kitchen table making figurines blossomed into collectibles wanted by people worldwide. It’s a true self-made, all-American story.
Beginning in the 1960s, Joyce Byers, who holds a degree in fashion design, spent the leadup to every Christmas hand crafting Carolers as decorations and Christmas presents. What began as a few small gifts for family made out of some clay, paint, scraps of old clothes and her sons’ hair quickly grew into a project that took over the Byers’s house every December as more and more people learned about the Carolers and wanted their own.
The unique appearance and handcrafted quality of the Carolers quickly gained a following, soon involving her husband and sons. They turned their garage into a workshop, and from there, they left the home and went to an official full-fledged business. From its humble beginnings, the company has grown to a team of dozens of artisans working who handcraft the Carolers, which are sold in gift stores across the United States.
“No two Carolers are ever the same,” Joyce explained. “Our artisans create a unique character and personality in each figure by using a variety of techniques and materials. Each crafter leaves a little bit of her in every figure she touches. As many as 10 people will work on one caroler. Consequently, it is almost impossible to find two Carolers that are exactly alike.”
Joyce’s husband, Bob, who worked in the business, is now retired. Son Bob works in production, and Jeff helps with marketing and design. Bob came into the family business in 1987 after graduating from University of Pennsylvania. His brother Jeff followed his footsteps a few years later in 1990 after graduating from Drexel University.
The Byers’ experience at the Visitor Center will take a couple of hours. After the short film, we followed a cobblestone street, reminiscent of Dickens’s London, that led us from room to room. Each room had different displays. Some were filled with holiday scenes, others with only Kindles, the Byers’ smaller signature figurines. We walked along and peered through the windows of shops and homes filled with Christmas displays. Then we entered the museum with hundreds of Carolers and Kindles on display in heartwarming vignettes, as well as depictions of Christmas traditions from around the world. Beverly pointed out the larger figurines on display that were once part of her mother’s collection before she donated them back to the Byers to display in the museum.
One room of the Visitor Center was filled with more than 200 breathtaking crèches, or nativities, with the Byers’ Choice Nativity front and center. The crèches vary in size, details and style, but they are all amazing in their own special way. Every display was painstakingly arranged with precise details and embellishments to create realistic scenes. I was amazed by the artistry of each exhibit.
The Byers family members are usually on-site, with all of them, down-to-earth and hands-on in the business. We met Bob Byers, Joyce’s son, in one of the rooms. Thanks to Beverly, she introduced us, and he proudly showed us around and answered our questions.
Bob said the Visitor Center was built on the 25-acre property in 1994 so people with a passion for Byers’ Carolers could come visit and get an up-close look at how the collectibles are individually made.
“People kept telling us they’d love to come for a tour,” Bob explained. “We opened the Visitor Center to allow our customers to become a bigger part of the whole Byers’ experience.”
Bob said that the family had no idea what a popular draw that the center would turn out to be. The Visitor Center attracts tens of thousands of visitors per year from all over to see one of the last “Made in the U.S.A.” Christmas decoration companies in America.
“We put out the word to the public that we were going to open the Visitor Center. When we looked outside that morning, there was a line of people waiting to come in. We had no idea this crowd would come,” remembered Bob. “Luckily we have lots of ribbon on site here. We ran in the back and brought out some ribbon to quickly do a ribbon-cutting. The people poured in and have never stopped coming!”
Bev, Marie and I were able to climb a few steps to an observation deck that overlooks the actual artists working on the figures, each handcrafted and made individually. I think this was the most amazing part of the entire tour. Seeing the process involved and each artist’s time and talent going into each figure made me understand the value, quality and pricing and appreciate the product so much more. Byers employs about 70 people, and about 50 of those are skilled artisans who craft the company’s signature Carolers figurines from start to finish.
Joyce Byers is still the main designer and creator of the figures. Her son Bob said that she is always studying people’s faces, no matter where she goes, and then tries to recreate them in clay. She still hand picks out material for the figurines’ clothing and chooses the accessories for embellishment.
At the end of the tour, visitors can stroll the award-winning flower and sculpture gardens outside if it’s a nice day or visit the dress up room to don old-fashion Carolers’ outfits. Bev, Marie and I couldn’t resist putting on long velvet capes, fancy embellished hats and fur muffs to play the part of real-live Byers’ Carolers for a fun photo shoot.
Last but not least, no trip would be complete without a visit to the gift shop for that one-of-a-kind special find. I was personally amazed at the scope of the Byers’ products. I honestly thought they only made Carolers, but there were figurines and accessories themed for Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July, Easter, the beach, Mother’s Day, occupations/professions, Thanksgiving, back-to-school, sports, historical moments and ones to mark every lifetime occasion.
Basically, if you can think it, you can find it there.
Customers will soon be able to have figurines customized.
“The people who visit us here are really good people,” Bob explained. “I love listening to their stories and hearing about their collections and their families. In fact, that’s probably what is the most special to us — hearing how much these figurines mean to people.”
The Byers’ Choice Ltd Visitor Center is always free of charge. Bob said that he wanted to give complimentary admission to make it like the displays in Philadelphia at John Wanamaker and Lit Brothers that he saw as a child each Christmas. He wants nothing more than for visits to Byers’ Choice to become an annual holiday tradition for families, an outing that everyone looks forward to, year after year.
And one more really nice thing I found out before leaving — a fact that left me with a really good feeling about the Byers — the family said that their main premise is serving God and giving back. Since 1986, the Byers Foundation has donated approximately 20 percent of its profits annually to a wide range of charitable organizations.
When we left the Byers’ Visitor Center, we ended our little day excursion to Bucks County by stopping down the street at the Talking Teacup tearoom, also in Chalfont, thanks once again to our gracious host, Beverly. This was just a lovely, relaxing experience to cap off a perfect day!
If you haven’t checked out the “Made in Pennsylvania” Byers’ Choice Visitor Center yet, you’ll surely enjoy the experience if you go at any time of the year. One thing that I know for certain is that I will never look at any iconic Byers’ Choice collectible in the same way again.
Byers’ Choice LTD is at 4355 County Line Road, Chalfont. The current hours from February to June are Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information, call 215-822-6700 or visit byerschoice.com.