The well dressed woman in the gray pant suit arrived in front of the crimson brick building. She stopped to marvel at the craftsmanship of the all-brick entrance with its two turrets framing a circular brick faux window culminating at the apex. Soon she realized a man was standing inside the window display, attempting to balance on his front foot while tacking the right corner of a poster. She admired his tenacity. However, when the opposite corner came untacked, she watched with amusement as the left side of the 3-foot-high banner came rolling toward him like a wave curling on the beach in Bolinas.
“Damn,” the man laughed aloud. While gathering the banner, he remained unaware that anyone was watching from the sidewalk. A professional retail display specialist, this should have been the simplest of chores during this holiday season, yet it had turned into one of the most unpleasant. All of his San Francisco window displays had been completed weeks ago. He had returned to his hometown to assist his father and uncle in their annual holiday wooden toy creations. Jamas always came back in early December to decorate the storefront and the window display, with appropriate seasonal festoons, ribbons, and evergreen branches. But today required the sad chore of hanging this temporary paper sign that notified walk-in patrons that the Solteros had suspended sales of their famous Christmas Wish Holder, for what had become a Sacramento holiday tradition.
When Jamas finished tacking up the sign, he stood off to the side, reading it once more:
SOLTERO CHRISTMAS WISH HOLDERS
Temporarily “Off Sale”
Check Back Later This Week!
“Sad day.” The woman’s voice floated over the bell ringing inside the doorway.
Jamas turned and replied, “Sure is.” He recognized the tall businesswoman, but couldn’t recall her name. He remarked to himself that the color of her hair nearly matched the rich Rosewood wooden vessel sitting on the pedestal in the window.
She stuck out her right hand. “Grace McBride. You might remember me from high school, when my maiden name was…”
“Cech…Ceccarelli,” Jamas interjected, “Donnie’s girlfriend! I remember you.” They exchanged smiles once more.
Grace nodded. “I’m here to see Ernie. Is he here?”
“Sure. C’mon in.” Jamas led her inside the building, which served as a retail store and workshop combined. They passed the glass sales counter, where more of the ornately decorated Rosewood Christmas Wish Holders were stacked on shelves. Most of the space in this quaint brick building served as the brothers’ workshop, with hand tools hanging on walls, inside wooden cubbies or scattered on tables. But the workshop was quiet now. Just a small pile of sawdust collected under the table where Rolando quietly sanded a child’s toy. He looked up as his son escorted the woman toward the back.
“Uncle Ernie,” Jamas called. “You have a visitor.”
Ernesto Soltero, the younger of the two retired brothers, emerged from the conference room. “Graciella!” he said, wrapping the woman in a friendly bear hug. “Como está?” His gray bearded whiskers tickled her neck. “Good to see you again, darlin’. C’mon in.”
Ernie escorted her to a chair in front of the conference room table and walked around to the table’s other side. “Gosh, you look great,” he said. “It’s been, what, at least five years since we bumped into each other at the mall that time?”
The woman laid her valise on the table and pulled out her Droid. “At least that long.” She gestured toward the middle of the table where another of the Rosewood wooden boxes stood on top of a sheet of paper that contained the corporate logo of the Stoyonix Corporation. “This is your problem, I take it?”
“Yes, doggone it. One second, while I bring my brother in here,” he said, holding out his left hand, while standing in the doorway. “Rollie!” he yelled, signaling with his right arm. “C’mon in here, will ya?”
Rolando Soltero, older and shorter than Ernesto, came in and sat down next to Grace. He wore an old fedora pulled low over his brow, which nearly disguised the gaze that remained fixed on the table. She noticed him casting a furtive glance out of the corner of his eye, which accentuated his gray mustache.
“Rollie, this is the PR gal, I was telling you about…Grace McBride. She owns Capital Communications.” Grace shook hands with the mild-mannered brother. “Alright, where to begin?” Ernie said, stroking his gray beard.
Pulling her sterling silver pen from the top of her writing pad, Graciella replied, “Always best to start at the beginning.”
“Well, as I told you on the phone, we were hit with a threat of trademark infringement by that Stoyonix Corporation, up there in Nevada City. Infringement! Hell, I thought they were talking about that stuff that hung off of Buffalo Bill Cody’s suede jacket.”
Grace finished writing a sentence. “Trademark infringement is a serious matter. Have you consulted an attorney?”
Rolando thumped the table. “My point exactly!”
“We haven’t got time for that,” Ernie countered. “By the time we got to court, I’ll be planting tomatoes again, and none of the kids will get their Christmas Holders.”
Grace asked him to start over, this time including how this year’s version of the Holders attracted the attention of a $2 billion Internet company nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills a little more than an hour’s drive away.
For more than a decade, the retired construction workers Rolando and Ernesto Soltero had been making children’s toys for sale at Christmas, first at Rollie’s home, and then later in their 34th Street workshop. Cheap rent and close proximity to the downtown shopping district prompted them to lease this single-story brick building dating back to the last roar of the Roaring Twenties.
Over the past few years, their specialty evolved into making wooden Christmas “Wish Boxes,” which were constructed out of rich pine and shaped like a cigar box. Enclosed in their “wish box” was a slip of paper instructing the child to write a wish for a grandparent or other relative and store it inside the box during the holidays. Then throughout the year they could use the wooden box to stash their favorite pencil, scissors and other trinkets. Moderately priced at $35, the handcrafted wish boxes sold out early in the season, and the Solteros donated the net profits to a local charity. The hand carved artwork, in combination with their philanthropic enterprise, engendered a loyal following in the Sacramento community.
Then this past summer, Ernesto’s only child—Donte—had come up with the idea of creating a family logo to market their merchandise. A professional graphic designer, Donte had created logos for clients over the years, but this would be the first Soltero brand. As Donte’s wife had passed away suddenly in late spring from pancreatic cancer, Ernesto encouraged his son in the development of the family logo, in part to help keep his mind off of the tragedy. It seemed to work, as he immersed himself in the project.
During the research phase, Donte delved into the lore of the Amazon rainforest, as their Portuguese heritage and family name originated in Brazil. Consequently, his design reflected the ethos of the Indian tribes. Moreover, he enhanced the mystique by securing a supply of Rosewood, a dark hardwood, which resulted in a richness and beauty never before reflected in the Soltero boxes.
Utilizing every inch of the expensive lumber, his design called for the container to be vertical instead of horizontal, and measure six inches in height, four inches in width by four inches in depth. The ultimate shape, size and beauty of this item called for something less utilitarian than a “box.”
After more research, the family decided to call it a “wish holder,” since it was shaped like a pencil holder from an office supply store. Once the children had made their holiday wishes, they could also use the object as a pen or pencil holder on their desk. Finally, Donte designed a custom printed card that would be attached by a string to the lid of the container. The instructions read:
Write Your Wish to Make Someone’s Dream Come True
Drop this card inside. Close lid tight. And believe…
Enclosed with the batch of Rosewood lumber was a small doeskin packet that contained some of the original sawdust particles that resulted from the tree cuttings. Inside the pouch on a slip of paper was a brief warning written in Portuguese salpique com moderação. Translated it meant, “sprinkle sparingly.” Recognizing the dust was intended to be incorporated in the final product, Donte sprinkled a minute amount over the top of each hand-painted, varnished logo. The act of sprinkling the dust upon the object ensured the wish would be granted through a spell supplied by the shaman of the tribe, he was told. As a lifelong Catholic, Donte had witnessed priests sprinkling holy water and incense as a means of blessing an object. Surely, this shamanic ritual couldn’t be much different. For the final step, something he came up with through experimentation, he “baked” the holders in his oven at home to seal in the decorative properties, just as he had watched Uncle Richie do with his Raku pottery pieces many years ago in Oregon. The ultimate effect made the image jump to life.
Last year, Solteros sold more than 250 of the pinewood Christmas boxes. This year, to help cover the cost of the more expensive Rosewood, and because demand last season far exceeded supply, they increased their output to 500 units. Meantime, expenses had risen nearly threefold, so it was critical that they sold each box—holder—produced.
Their problems began when the wife of State Senator Dawson purchased one of the first Rosewood variety Christmas Wish Holders for her youngest child, and displayed the unique object at a Christmas party the senator hosted in mid-December. In attendance that day was Stoyonix Company CEO, Ronko Stoyonovich, who viewed the object and immediately thought he saw a similarity in the Soltero logo to his company’s corporate logo. In short order, his legal team dispatched a “cease and desist” letter, warning the Solteros of the company’s intention to file a trademark infringement suit in state court should the Solteros continue selling the wooden collectible this holiday season.
Since it was known Donte was still grieving over the death of his wife, Rollie didn’t want to castigate his nephew over the problem. For that reason he reluctantly agreed to at least meet with this high level PR woman that came highly recommended by his brother.
The sound of the Droid vibrating on the table interrupted Ernie’s presentation. Grace snapped up the personal device and read a quick text message. “Excuse me one second? The office needs me to confirm something—the mayor’s office is calling about an event tonight.” She sent off a reply and placed the device back inside her coat jacket.
Ernie said, “Well, that’s where we are: stuck here with 500 Christmas boxes, that we dare not sell or otherwise incur the wrath of Stoyonovich, who’s worth several billion dollars, and can delay this thing until doomsday.”
“Not to mention ruin us financially,” added Rollie.
Jamas, who had been leaning against the doorjamb with his arms folded, listening to the conversation, chimed in. “My dad can’t afford any legal bills, not on top of my mom’s current medical condition," said the slender man. "We need to be prudent in our decision here.” The profundity of his statement quieted the group. “I’m just sayin’.”
“No, no, we understand you’re just watchin’ after your folks, Jimmy,” Ernest said. “But again, we can’t make 500 new boxes in time for Christmas. Hell, we got people driving by looking in the window waiting for the sale sign to go live. It’s a little more than one week before Christmas. If we go the legal route, we’re done for this season.”
After listening intently, it appeared to Grace they had only one solution: Donate the objects to a local charity and take the tax write-off. “If I may recommend one, perhaps the Saint Celestin Orphanage.” She offered that she might come up with something more productive after consulting with her staff, but given the extreme deadline and restrictive circumstances, this seemed like the logical choice. “If you like, I can arrange a meeting with the Stoyonix legal team, maybe as early as tomorrow,” she offered. Reluctantly, the Solteros all agreed. Grace promised to prepare a one-page written summary of the action points for their review by end of the day.
Escorting her toward the door, Ernie thanked Graciella for coming and told her to include an estimate for her time. The woman shook her head and smiled. “I’m doing this ‘pro bono.’ It’s the least I can do, given the holiday season, and your situation.”
Outside the doorway, she turned and asked, “How’s Donte these days?”
The older man folded his arms across his powder blue denim shirt, pursed his lips and nodded. “Well, you may have heard he’s still getting over the loss of his wife. It’s been hard on him, you know. All in all, he’s doing…not too bad.”
She nodded. “And the kids, how are they taking it?”
“Aw, they’re great. Alena’s in her first year at Sonoma State and Anthony’s a junior in high school. In fact, Alena’s home now on vacation, helpin' her dad around the house.”
She nodded again, self consciously. “I was hoping he would be here today. Haven’t seen him in a really long time.”
Ernie explained that Donte, in fact, was meeting with a vendor friend that morning, exhausting every avenue possible for modifying the Holders in the hope of avoiding the potential injunction. One experiment they recently tried called for the physical removal of the logo, but Donte had used a high-tech pressure beading process for applying the color and the excision made for a sloppy and scarred face. They even considered taking apart the five-sided objects and replacing the front face, but the joints had been secured with a strong epoxy and would not come apart without damaging the wood.
“I’m sure you’ll catch up with him before this is all through.”
“Good to hear,” Graciella responded, walking around to the driver’s side of her Jaguar. “Great to see you, Ernesto. I’ll get started on this as soon as I get back to the office.”
* * *
That evening, Donte stood in the kitchen of his Pocket Area home intently watching the highlights of a college basketball game while braising chicken on the Jenn-Aire stovetop. Still rail lean from years of racquetball, he retained a youthful-looking physique for 45, and if not for the nearly gray head of hair, could even pass for late thirties. Anthony, his 16-year-old son was sitting on the couch, watching it along with him on the wall screen, while Alena was setting the table.
“When’s the last time you saw a game, Dad?” she asked. “In person.” Donte’s facial expression told her it had been so long he couldn’t recall. “You really need to get out more. Have some fun. I’m worried about you,” she said, patting the back of his shirt.
“Don’t worry about me, dear,” Donte said, taking a swig from his beer bottle.
Anthony looked up from the couch with a disdainful expression. “I was talking to dad,” she said in her brattiest sister voice. Anthony smiled and turned back to the television. It was so good to have Alena back home again, especially during the holidays.
Taking up her case again, she noted “You really need to get out, I mean like out partying.” Her father’s scowl prompted her to add, “I’m just sayin’.”
The wall phone rang. Alena answered. “Soon…I promise. I’m still unpacking. When are you going to come over for dinner? How ‘bout tonight? No? Okay. Here’s dad,” she said handing the yellow phone to her father. “Grandpa.”
Ernie mentioned that Graciella McBride came by that afternoon, met with them, and had some good ideas for getting them out of the jam. Donte thought they were going to wait until he came back with his final report. Ernie next asked how it went with the vendor Donte visited earlier in the day. “No dice, Dad. We’re stuck. Made these things too damn well, apparently.” Alena glanced over to see a rare chuckle from her father. “Tonight? I suppose. Yeah, sure, meet you there.”
After dinner, Donte slipped on his jacket and told Alena he was going out for awhile. She brightened at the thought her father was taking her advice, but when she learned he was just going out to meet her grandfather at the tavern, she simply shrugged.
(End Chapter One)
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