If the idea of heavy traffic and crowded stores steals your holiday cheer and you long for the chance to select a handmade gift in a peaceful setting, consider a drive to Cardinal Hill Candles in Rochester.
Time seems to stands still at Cardinal Hill, a 100-year-old corn crib that was converted into a candle shop in 1972. It's a family store, started by Virginia Waldmire and her daughter-in-law, Arlene. It's now run by Arlene and her husband, Bill, along with their children.
Arlene makes all the candles by hand, using techniques she's perfected over the last three decades. When she and Virginia started, they melted wax using an electric skillet. Her equipment has been upgraded, but the time-consuming process remains largely unchanged.
The shop opened in the era of bell-bottoms and macrame, when handcrafted items were in high demand. Today, the Waldmires have narrowed down the inventory considerably to focus on what they do best: handmade candles.
With authentic wood floors and rustic finishes, the store offers a charming Americana experience. Shelves are lined with Route 66 memorabilia, antiques, craft supplies, some Beanie Babies and other eclectic merchandise, as well as the expected candles of all shapes and sizes. Many of the candles are made using soy wax, which burns cleaner than petroleum-based wax. Arlene also makes custom candles for weddings and other special events.
With nearly 60 scents to choose from, making a decision may seem tough, but the Waldmires see seasonal trends. Vanilla is popular year-round. At Christmas, people like food-based fragrances such as hot cocoa, cinnamon, cranberry and apple pie. Cucumber-melon is popular in the spring and summer.
Word of mouth has driven business throughout the years, bringing back generations of repeat customers who appreciate the rural ambiance (Cardinal Hill Candles is located on Cardinal Hill Road, 2 miles south of Rochester in a largely agricultural stretch).
"People ask why we aren't on the Internet, but that's a scary proposition. If we were deluged with orders, it would be almost counter to the ma and pa operation we're trying to continue," Bill explained.
He said it's important to shop locally, especially in rural communities, to promote a loyal customer base, but also create a sense of community.
"When a local business fails or fades, the whole community loses," Bill said.
Repeat customers come from the surrounding area, including Rochester, Springfield, Taylorville and Decatur. Recently, a Chicago resident placed a large order by phone.
The demand for arts and crafts supplies has gone down, but the store still carries bulk candle-making supplies, including wax, wicks, scents and color chips. While big-box stores have similar stock, Arlene has the knowledge and expertise to answer questions that novice candle-makers may have.
"It's a very satisfying feeling to have been in business this long," Bill said. "We don't have definite plans for the future. The store is what it is. We'll exist as long as we can and enjoy life."
Story published Friday, December 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 7 )