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Costeaux French Bakery’s nutcracker collection a Healdsburg tradition

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As the fall light wanes toward winter, row upon row of military-precise nutcrackers of every shape and size are lined up at Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg to get customers and visitors in the holiday spirit.

The nutcrackers stand in all their mostly painted jacketed glory, on shelves installed just for the holidays, on the mezzanine and in every nook and cranny. There is even a special tall nutcracker to greet you as you walk through the open gates.

Costeaux is a Healdsburg fixture, and when the holidays come around they are known to get into the spirit of things, but never did Will Seppi think he would be immersed in nutcrackers in November.

The young man who left for Villanova University in Pennsylvania thinking he was never to return to the Burg now embraces everything about it. At Villanova, he became an accountant and went on to work in Pennsylvania, until a fall on the ice and a pair of ripped pants made him long for California’s sunny weather. After transferring to the Silicon Valley and working there for several years, he returned home in 2005 and became general manager for the business in 2006.

As a scion of Nancy and Karl Seppi, owners of the bakery since 1981, he seems to be a natural in the job. And then, there are those holiday nutcrackers. One day, Will Seppi was out looking for a new “Santa chair” for the cafe’s holiday breakfasts with Santa and while he was wandering through the Salvation Army’s store at Lytton, he picked up a half-dozen nutcrackers. In line to check out, a woman asked him if he collected nutcrackers.

He thought about saying no, but the cargo in his arms would belie that answer. The woman’s mother had passed away, leaving her with a collection of nutcrackers that she didn’t know what to do with. So Seppi handed her his card, they sent along photos, and soon, “The nutcrackers came marching in.” He had bought the whole collection of more than 500.

Each year the collection grows. This year, Will Seppi received three new ones for his birthday from a long-term employee.

His favorite? The one that sits on his desk all year round. It’s been coined the “Gingerbread Baker,” he said, and it’s considered the bakery’s mascot.

“The design represents our core business of baking,” Seppi said. The baker nutcracker is an authentic Steinbach collectible made in Germany. It was a gift from the Healdsburg Raven Performing Arts Center given because of Costeaux’s long-term support of the organization. … It’s a reminder that a strong community is based on the collective contributions of many.”

Another favorite is a baker with toque, apron, tray and pastries, which is considered the business’s mascot.

In mid-November, willing and available employees join Seppi in the afternoon and evening to string garlands and lights down and across the walls, to unpack nutcrackers and place them in ranked rows, then to enjoy a meal to celebrate turning the bakery cafe into a holiday wonderland. Here is a ship’s captain, steering his wheel with a tiny boat at his feet. Over there is a nutcracker, “bought in Forestville” in 2004, with place and date marked clearly on his base. His military dress, fluffy white hair and beard are common among many of his fellow nutcrackers.

Despite certain similarities, each seems to have its own character. The rustic farmer marked 2013 wears overalls, with his straw hat perched on his black hair, holding a pitchfork, while the 2002 Santa nutcracker wears a sack on his back and, Christmas tree in hand, is perched on a pile of gifts, with a doll, teddy bear, train and drum scattered throughout.

Elsewhere, you’ll find a Teddy bear nutcracker with blue and gold striped pants, black boots, black majorette hat and gold epaulets. He was made in China, as many of them were. Another from 2010 is wearing cream and brown with gold accoutrements. The list goes on: a scuba diver, a Santa in pajamas, a trio standing on a cart, first responders, sports figures and so many more. The nutcrackers vary in size, with the shortest just 2 to 3 inches tall. Though a large number average around 18 inches tall, there are a few bigger ones up to 6 feet tall.

Then there’s the obviously vintage model baker with rolling pin, bread boards and baker’s toque, red-checked apron and one foot missing. Whether his broken foot will be hidden away or whether he’s a candidate for the “nutcracker hospital” is anyone’s guess.

There actually is a nutcracker hospital, and the chief “doctor” is Karl Seppi, patriarch of both the business and the family. Karl and Nancy Seppi come out for special occasions, though they no longer are part of the day-to-day operations of Costeaux.

Nutcrackers have been sent anonymously from Southern California. Others come from customers — one family donated some of their many nutcrackers, then lost all those they kept in the 2017 Tubbs fire. They returned to ask if Will Seppi would mind returning a few. He, of course, agreed.

Margie Hansen, an 11-year-plus employee, carries some of the nutcracker stories in her heart. She recounted the story of a woman who was going through cancer treatments and stopped by for cookies before each treatment with a friend. When she died, her friend gave Seppi a baker nutcracker.

When asked what people needed to know about Costeaux French Bakery and Cafe, Will Seppi quoted, “ ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,’ ” invoking Francis Pharcellus Church’s famous reply to a child’s letter in the New York Sun in 1897. “If you doubt this is a magical spot, just visit.”

While more than 700 nutcrackers now grace their collection, one never knows how many will be on display. To add to the holiday fun, customers are invited to place their guesses in a receptacle. The closest guess without going over wins a prize. Each Saturday morning in December, Costeaux holds the annual tradition of Breakfast with Santa from 9 to 11 a.m. Photos with Santa are free, though they are first come, first served.

Costeaux French Bakery and Cafe is open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays. It is located at 417 Healdsburg Ave.

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