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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on November 26th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 39 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 39

Holiday Guide 2019

By BY SUN STAFF

Toymaker Tom Merrin builds toys in memory of his father

BY WILLIAM D’URSO

Even 23 years later, the grief remains a silent passenger in Tom Merrin’s life, prodding him now and then, stirring those memories of long ago.

As the holidays draw near, and the toymaker builds wooden planes, trucks, and trains in Arroyo Grande, the passenger gets restless. 


MAKING MEMORIES
Tom Merrin the toy maker is, at 63, still making his wooden trains in memory of his father.
PHOTO BY WILLIAM D’URSO

Just a few days before Thanksgiving all those years ago, Tom’s father, Bob Merrin, was on his way to the hardware store. He was a toymaker, too. When he wasn’t keeping books, he was making hand-painted wooden rocking horses. He’d been building a toy train that year and, perhaps, was picking up supplies to finish. 

Bob collapsed in that store, slamming his head against the concrete floor, which knocked him into a coma. Tom was at his bedside a month later, and Bob was lucid. It was two days before Christmas. As Tom left that hospital room to return to his wife, he said goodbye.

His father said, “I love you.”

Two days later, Tom’s sister called to tell him their father had died that morning. Christmas morning.

Tom cried.

So much was unfinished.

*****

Tom’s father was always there to keep him in line in boyhood. No goofing off at church or the dinner table. Always keep the woodshop tidy. Discipline and order held an indelible position between them.

“My father was very authoritarian,” he said. “Life had hardened him when he was a young guy.”

Bob was of the Depression era and the lean times that came with it. As a Navy lieutenant, Bob was stationed on a ship running supplies to combat lines. In World War II, the deepening stress and escalating pressures of war, Tom recalls, forced the ship’s captain to relinquish duty.

And then Bob, with the discipline and order leadership necessitates, took command of the ship.

That resolve followed the Navy man home.

And it followed him into the woodshop, where the leader gave instructions to his son. His parents, Bob and Mary, fused their names for their business, calling it Marbo Hand Painted Toys. It began as just an experiment, when Mary brought home scavenged wood from a nearby church that was under construction. And Tom joined. He swept the floor. Tossed the wood scraps. Whatever needed doing. A distance remained between father and son, enduring through childhood and into adulthood.

“I didn’t go to the ballfield with my dad. We didn’t do that kind of thing,” Tom said. “We went to the woodshop and made dust.” 

Tom wanted more; he wanted a friendship with his father. So, in his mid-20s, Tom called him up, asked him out for a cup of coffee and a talk.

“I tried to reach out back to him and find that softer side, and I did,” Tom said. “So I had 10 years with him.”

After his father died, Tom started making toys for sale. Following a tradition, of sorts, he picked up where his father had left off. 

Armed with his experience working in his dad’s workshop, Tom gave it a try too.

He gathered up his toys in the late ’90s of ash, birch, walnut, and cherry, transporting them to a Grover Beach toy store. Nothing sold.


Train time
You can find hand-hewn, all natural wooden planes, trucks, trains, and more on Tom Merrin’s Hardwood Toys’ website at hardwoodtoys.com.

But he kept trying. He purchased the domain name hardwoodtoys.com and traveled to shows and festivals filled with vendors like him—and customers willing to give Tom Merrin’s Hardwood Toys online store a chance.

And at those events, Tom talked.

He talked price, $15 for a simple car. A train engine for $55, and a full eight-car set for $350.

And he talked materials. All wood. Natural. No added toxic lacquers, just hardwood sanded smooth and buffed with an old-fashioned cloth diaper.

The talk began with the toys, then his dad, then the Christmas Day his father died. And people listened, some telling their stories too, some crying as they told Tom their own sad stories.

And it helped, the work and talking about the friendship he’d finally been able to share with his father in life. 

And he’d tell those who listened about the unfinished work Bob left behind.

*****

Tom missed what had grown between him and his dad in the early years after his death. And though the hurt was still fresh, his mother had an idea.

Why not finish the train his father had started? His son was 2 years old then. Why not finish the toy for his little boy?

When Tom looked inside the Rubbermaid bin to see a heap of knotted pine, he cried. It wouldn’t be the last time, either.

It was crude going, done solely with hand tools, completing car after car of that unfinished set.

“I didn’t realize it then, but looking back now I know it helped me grieve the loss of my dad,” he said.


IN PROGRESS
The glue in an incomplete crane car sits in Tom Merrin’s kitchen.
PHOTO BY WILLIAM D’URSO

He doesn’t remember his reaction once the set was complete and his boy first played with it. But he kept making trains, adding other toys to his budding business. It never grew too big, maybe $10,000 in sales if it was a good year. But that was always fine with Tom. Even when his wife introduced him to someone who talked about manufacturing his toys on a broad, more cost-effective scale. It wasn’t for him. He stuck with his Arroyo Grande garage workshop, and the buzz of his bandsaw.

 Then, just two years ago, he got a fresh order. It was from the clothing brand Ralph Lauren. They wanted a wooden train. He sold one to them for their promotion and that was that. 

 Until this year. The brand reached out again, this time buying a full set with plans to display it in the window of their Madison Avenue store in New York City.

“I’m still sad as hell,” Tom said, pausing to compose himself. “But the pain isn’t as bad.”

It always helps to think of his father as he glues, as he cuts and polishes in memory of a life already lived, continued by another, their bond fused in each completed train. 

Contact Staff Writer William D’Urso at wdurso@santamariasun.com.


 

Ideas for getting into the holiday mood on the Central Coast if you miss snowy winters

BY ZAC EZZONE

As a transplant from northeast Ohio, I’ve found it hard to get into the holiday spirit the last few years without the multiple feet of snow and freezing cold temperatures that I’ve grown accustomed to dealing with for most of my life.

Although I only moved to Santa Maria in late March, I regrettably lived in Houston, Texas, for two years, which only has two seasons: really hot and humid, and slightly less hot and humid.


SNOWY FOREST
A little more than two hours away, the higher elevations of the Mount Pinos Ranger District in Los Padres National Forest see snow during the winter.
PHOTO BY ZAC EZZONE

At first, I relished not having to endure some aspects of a snowy winter. I don’t miss scraping ice off my car windshield only to then sit in my car shivering while waiting for the heat to kick on. For those of you who haven’t experienced this, driving in places where it snows is a process. But during my first year living in Houston, I found that the seasons and holidays would pass me by without any recognition. Now, in the midst of my first holiday season in California, I’m feeling the same way.

Neighbors in my apartment building are starting to put up Christmas trees and line their balconies with lights, but I’m just not feeling it yet. For the sake of wanting to feel jolly, I came up with a list of ways to convince myself it really is late November and not spring.

Drink it in

In Cleveland, one of the surest signs of the changing seasons—aside from the snow accumulating outside—is the release of Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s Christmas Ale. With hints of honey, cinnamon, and ginger, the first sip from this winter ale wraps around you like a warm blanket, protecting you from the freezing elements outside. It’s the beer for all wintery occasions, from family parties to drinks at the bar with friends to watching another humiliating Cleveland Browns’ loss, which unfortunately has been a citywide tradition for the past two decades.

Here on the Central Coast, it’s late November and I’m still finding a lot of IPAs—which I’m a huge fan of—on the shelves of grocery and liquor stores, but I’m eager to check out some seasonal releases from our local breweries.

SLO Brew released its Churro Stout earlier this month, which is dark, smooth, and has that cinnamon flavor that reminds me of holiday sweets. Meanwhile, BarrelHouse Brewing Co. is releasing its bourbon barrel-aged Curly Wolf Imperial Stout on Nov. 29, and it seems to have the qualities necessary to get through a cold winter. Who cares if it’s 60-something degrees outside? While sitting in their basement bar in downtown San Luis Obispo, I can just tell myself it’s snowing.

Finding snow

I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland called Twinsburg, which, in addition to having the world’s largest annual gathering of twins, is home to a hill that’s great for sledding when it snows. Nothing puts you in the holiday spirit faster than speeding down a hill only to hit a bump, fly off your sled, and eat a face full of snow.

Although the Central Coast has plenty of hills that would be ideal for sledding, it lacks the other necessary ingredient: snow. But there are places within driving distance that can fill this void.

At higher than 8,000 feet in elevation, there are sledding and snow activity areas near the Chula Vista campground in southern Kern County’s Mount Pinos Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest. Staff with the forest posted photos on Facebook of snow within the forest on Dec. 7 last year. According to a snow report from earlier this year, the snow was still hanging around at higher elevations in late April.

Christmas kitsch shopping

Settled by German immigrants, the city of Frankenmuth, Michigan, is known for its architecture, which reflects its founders’ country of origin—sound familiar, Solvang? About 15 or so years ago, my family and I visited the city to check out Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland—which claims to be the world’s largest Christmas store—and other stores selling kitschy European-style gifts.


CHRISTMAS KITSCH
Just walking through shops in Solvang makes it feel a bit more like the holidays, even when it’s 72 degrees outside.
PHOTO BY ZAC EZZONE

One night while we were there, it began to snow, gently covering the streets and buildings. It was serene. The whole town looked like the inside of a snow globe, and it was oddly magical.

I imagine Solvang would feel the same way if it ever snowed there. But even without the precipitation, it’s hard to not feel at least a twinge of the holiday spirit while checking out the stores selling ornaments, nutcrackers, and other iconic holiday kitsch.

And this is before the city gets all decked out in decorations and lights.

Not to mention all the delicious baked goods from the numerous Danish bakeries there. If it takes me eating my weight’s worth of Danish sweets to get into the holiday spirit, then so be it.

Follow the lights

Growing up, my family would put a modest amount of effort into decorating the outside of our house during the holidays, but never anything significant. We threw some netted lights on the bushes out front, maybe lined the garage with some more, and called it a day.

But being here on the Central Coast, I’m hoping that some decked-out light displays might make it feel a bit more like the holidays.

The city of Santa Maria kicked off its holiday decorating contest on Nov. 16, and I’m eager to see the results. Santa Maria residents, I’m counting on you to help me get into the holiday spirit—don’t let me down. 

Staff Writer Zac Ezzone misses the snow, but mostly Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s Christmas Ale. Send him the names of your favorite holiday beers at zezzone@santamariasun.com.


 

Inquiring minds were dying to know: What’s it like having tons of children ask you for gifts every year?

BY GLEN STARKEY


Naughty or nice? Santa’s there for you!
Downtown SLO opens Santa’s House on Friday, Nov. 29, at 10 a.m. Hours vary. Visit downtownslo.com/santas-house-2 for a schedule. Santa will also arrive at the Santa Maria Town Center on Nov. 22. And yes, hours vary there as well. He can’t be everywhere all at once. Check out @SantaMariaTownCenter on Facebook to stay updated.
 

JOLLY SAINT NICK!
Santa Claus will have his lap open for business in the SLO Mission Plaza from Nov. 29 through Dec. 24.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DOWNTOWN SLO

Ho ho ho! Whether you know him as Santa Claus, Old Saint Nick, or Kris Kringle, the jolly man in red will be welcoming kids of all ages to Downtown SLO’s Santa’s House in the SLO Mission Plaza beginning on Nov. 29. 

Santa took a break from making his list and checking it twice to converse with the Sun via email.

Sun: How long have you been Santa, and was it something you sought out or were you asked?

Santa Claus: This is my fifth year as Santa Claus. Six years ago, I was standing in line with my granddaughters at the Mission Plaza Santa’s House, and the person in charge spotted me and as I had a full but shorter white beard, I guess I appeared to be a candidate. She gave me her card, and I thought about it for a few months before I gave her a call and told her I was willing to give it a try.

Sun: How many children do you think have crossed your lap over your tenure as Santa?

Santa Claus: I would guess more than 1,500 children of all ages have spent time on this Santa’s lap. And quite a few dogs. I have had a 7-foot Cal Poly basketball player, a 6-foot-2 fashion model, a TV star or two, a San Luis police officer, and a celebrity rescue dog with its own YouTube channel and website.

Sun: What sort of unusual requests have you had? Have there been any heartbreakers, like, “Santa, all I want for Christmas is my parents to stop fighting?” 

Santa Claus: Probably my most unusual request was for some wood to build a piano. They did not want a piano; they wanted to build a piano. Santa gets heartbreaking requests every year. Santa never makes promises, even for toys, but parents fighting is a tough one. Santa tells them that they bring joy to the world, try to be the best person they can be, give hugs and support, and always remember that both parents love them and they must work out their adult situation between one another.

Sun: Do parents ever consult with you to be sure to get their kids the right thing?

Santa Claus: Some parents have asked me what their child told me they wanted for Christmas but none have coached me on a toy. I have been asked to talk to a child about doing better in school. Santa does not normally lecture children, and I do not ask them if they have been naughty or nice. I ask if they have been helpful to their parents or guardians. When they say, “yes” (and they always do), I ask them to give me some examples. I usually get silence and then encourage them to do helpful chores around the house (such as picking up their clothes) and do the best they can in school and in playing with their friends. Not lecturing, but encouraging. And implying that the “Nice” list always has room.

Sun: Sorry, got to ask: Has a child ever peed on you? Do kids pull your beard?

Santa Claus: No children have ever had “accidents” on this Santa that I know of. Some sick children cough and sneeze in Santa’s face. Santa eats an apple a day and takes Airborne and lots of vitamin C. Santa encourages parents not to bring sick children to the Santa line. Every year Santa gets the beard pullers. Some tugs are inadvertent (such as infants) and some come with that in mind. It seems to be some kind of proof that Santa is real.

Sun: When you get a scared or crying kid, do you have any secret or trick to calm them down?

Santa Claus: Santa tries to have reindeer bells, rubber duckies, and bubbles on hand to help calm the fears. Santa tries not to use candy canes to stop the crying, but some parents panic and start suggesting candy. Parents spend 11 months of the year trying to teach their children not to take candy from strangers, then bring them to see Santa ... Santa never panics.

Sun: What do you do when you’re not being Santa?

Santa Claus: This Santa tries to keep the attitude of Santa year ’round, but I do have my own little elves at home who like to take adventures with Grandpa Santa. 

Glen Starkey is New Times’ senior staff writer. Contact him at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.




Weekly Poll
Guadalupe is in the midst of new development, but is that a good thing?

No. The new homes will expand the town too much and run the small-town vibe.
No. Commercial development will follow and destroy all the local businesses.
Yes. The town can't survive another economic downturn without more business and residents in town.
Yes, but the town has to steer development toward tourism and the hospitality industry.

| Poll Results