By Bryan Marquard
OSTERVILLE, Mass. (Boston Globe) — Imagine that it’s late June in 2003 and you’re standing inside the Christmas Tree Shops in Yarmouth Port, those manors of merchandise that Chuck Bilezikian built into a sprawling empire with his wife and two sons. A few days earlier, the Bilezikians had announced that they were selling their business to Bed Bath & Beyond, but on that summer afternoon you could grab a door wreath covered with plastic shells and starfish for $4.99, a 26-piece flashlight set for $3.99, or scores of other items you never thought you needed before stepping through the door.
Those low prices and the giddy array of shopping possibilities were largely the work of Bilezikian, who was a “visionary,” his wife, Doreen, told the Globe in 2000.
He got to know his customers very well,” recalled Ed Mullin, who ran the company’s administration and finance division for many years. Mr. Bilezikian, Mullin said, would seek out a potential new item “and would look at the product and say, ‘My customers would pay $1.99 for that.’” Then Bilezikian would figure out how to buy in bulk so he could resell each item at precisely the price he had named.
A philanthropist for many causes after selling the Christmas Tree Shops, He died Tuesday, July 26, in his Osterville home of pancreatic cancer. He was 79 and had divided his time between Osterville and Palm Beach, Fla.
As a slogan, the Christmas Tree Shops adopted a phrase that was both a question and a challenge: “Don’t you just love a bargain?” Virtually everyone did, and nearly no one could resist the offerings. Shoppers who thought they could breeze through and escape empty-handed often left with one or two items — or one or two dozen. Bus tours, Mullin said, would load up in New Jersey in the morning, visit a few Christmas Tree Shops locations, and head home at night.
That wasn’t just because Bilezikian had a practiced eye for filling shelves with stocking stuffers that proved irresistible in August. Mullin said his boss also staffed stores with the right mix of employees, with whom he shared more than a nodding acquaintance. Bilezikian, Mullin said, had a talent for remembering names and meaningful details about every employee, even when the chain expanded from its small beginnings to the 23 stores the family sold to Bed Bath & Beyond in 2003 for about $200 million.
“He would walk over to an employee and say, ‘Hi, Mary. How are you? How’s your son John? Is he still having problems with math?’ When we had a few stores, he did it, and when we had a lot of stores, he did it,” Mullin said. “He just had that love of people. He would engage in conversations with his employees, and it wasn’t just a thing to do. He enjoyed it, and he remembered them. You can’t put a value on that.”
Charles G. Bilezikian was one of two children born to Krikor Bilezikian and the former Beatrice Kasparian. His father was a tailor who died when the younger Bilezikian was in his late teens. His mother subsequently worked as a sales clerk in Waltham’s Grover Cronin store.
Bilezikian graduated from Newton High School and went to Suffolk University. He began working in retail, and he married Doreen Portnoy 52 years ago.
“He loved merchandise, understood it, and worked at it,” said their son Jeffrey of Watertown. “And he was good at it. He didn’t get sidetracked. He never said, ‘I wish I was a car dealer or a nightclub owner or a lawyer.’”
The Christmas Tree Shops had started out as a summer business in Yarmouth Port. The couple who founded the company only opened “during July and August, but sold just Christmas merchandise,” Doreen told the Globe in 1996. “They had Christmas music playing and wished everybody a Merry Christmas. Eventually, they went into bankruptcy.” Another owner ran the shops for a decade, she said, and then “we came down for the July Fourth weekend with some friends in 1970, and he said, ‘You want to buy a business?’ ”
They did. The company’s plural name was a nod to the three separate buildings that were part of the original business. The Bilezikians moved into an apartment over the Yarmouth Port store and “on Friday nights — because everything was so geared to the weekend — we would put the kids in pajamas, go downstairs, and stock the store,” Doreen said.
As the business expanded to more locations on and off Cape Cod, Bilezikian traveled to China and elsewhere in search of products, and he refined his management approach, Mullin said. “Every store was at the discretion of the manager,” he added. “If you were the manager of Store A, you might put up a product up front, and the manager of Store B might put it in back.”
Bilezikian rearranged his workers as deftly as his managers moved around merchandise. While the payroll grew to about 3,000 employees, “he would take people out of stores and make them buyers, and would make buyers into managers,” Mullin said. “He had that knack to make people overachieve.”
After selling the business, Bilezikian and his family launched the Bilezikian Family Foundation, which has supported everything from a residential program in South Plymouth for boys in crisis to a variety of projects in Armenia. Through the Armenian Missionary Association of America, for which he served as a board member, he helped fund humanitarian work that included a kindergarten, a community center, a dental clinic, and the renovation of a hospital.
In addition to his wife and son, Bilezikian leaves another son, Gregory of Hyannisport, and six grandchildren.
A funeral service was held at First Armenian Church in Belmont. Burial was in Newton Cemetery. A celebration of his life will be held at 11 a.m. August 18 in First Congregational Church in Yarmouth Port.
Bilezikian, who grew up as part of a large extended family, was a principal organizer of expansive gatherings each year, including a summer picnic on the Cape.
“We always had Thanksgiving dinner with a hundred people at our church hall,” Jeffrey said. “He loved that. It was a nice day to sit around and catch up with his cousins and family.”
Bilezikian “was a very loving, kind, generous man, very hard-working, and he had strong family values,” said his niece, Kimberly Kamborian of Watertown. “He always put family first and brought family together for holidays and picnics. He knew how to pull out the best in people, and to make them feel good.”