If Santa Claus ever needs to hire a chief elf, he could do no better than to sign up Fran Yates, who possesses all of the necessary qualifications.
She's diminutive, cute as a button, always cheerful, and knows both children and the toy business so well that you're surprised her maiden name isn't Mattel.
Happily for us, until Santa offers her a job, Yates is putting her knowledge to local use and benefit as the co-owner of Rim Country Kids a veritable palace of fun and educational playthings and collectibles in Sawmill Crossing, right around the corner from the Sawmill Theatres cineplex.
As you can imagine, this is not exactly the time of year when Yates has a whole lot of time to sit and shoot the breeze. But when she was finally cornered, amid the background noises of bustling shoppers and ringing cash registers, the first topic of conversation was a natural:
Memories of the Christmases of her own childhood in New York (where she was born and lived until the age of 10) and New Jersey (where she survived her teen years).
"When I think of the Christmas past, I remember all of the New York traditional things," Yates said. "Going shopping and looking at the store windows. Going to Rockefeller Center and seeing the Christmas tree. Ice skating. Going to an aunt's house in the country on Christmas Day. We had a big, extended family, and I was not just an only child, but the youngest first cousin. So I was pretty spoiled.
"What I remember most, though," she said with a nostalgic smile, "is the feeling and the wonder and all of the excitement. "You know, people think of New Jersey as a crowded, overpopulated state. But we lived in Oakland, about 26 miles from New York City, on a private dirt road across from a river just like we do now in Payson. It was like another world."
Yates didn't leave that world until she left home to attend Boston University, where she majored in elementary education. After a fairly brief stint as a first-grade teacher in the Boston area, she took two years off and then enrolled in the University of Connecticut to earn a master's degree in special education, the field Yates moved into upon her when return to Boston.
"Now you're beginning to see how I made the extension into educational toys," Yates said.
In 1980, she headed off to South Florida, where she met the man who would become her husband and Payson toy store co-owner, George Yates.
Asked if it was love at first sight, Fran has an immediate answer: "We're not going to go into that stuff!" she said with a laugh. "I'll just say we met through a neighbor, and that it was a mutual interest at first sight."
By this time, Yates said, "I had decided to leave public education. I really got tired of the bureaucracy. I wasn't tired of the kids, but as a department head, I was tired of spending most of my time doing paperwork. I couldn't see that the paperwork was helping kids in the ways I wanted to help them."
Her solution was to enter the world of big business first as a sales representative for Scholastic Books, and then similar duty for Western Publishing Company, which produces Little Golden Book, games, puzzles and other playthings under its Whitman label.
"That's how I was introduced to the toy business," Yates recalled. "I worked on national accounts, like Target and K-Mart and other 'big box' stores, and learned that end of the business."
In 1985, Fran and George saw their mutual interests evolve into marriage, and Fran took yet another hard look at her professional life.
"I was traveling so much at that time, so I left Western. I decided I'd rather spend time with George than on an airplane. And that's when George said, 'Well, why don't you do what you've always wanted to do?' So I opened my own book and toy store in south Florida."
The Yateses operated that business for seven years. And then ...
"We had wanted a change. And like so many people who come here, we fell in love with Payson as we drove through on vacation. It just felt right.
"Ironically, our house in south Florida was on the market, and we joked, 'If it sells while we're on vacation, we'll come back to Payson and buy a house.' Well, it sold while we were going through Moab, Utah. So we turned around, came back to Payson, and bought a house."
That was in 1993. Two years later, the Yateses opened up the first incarnation of Rim Country Kids in the Swiss Village Shopping Center.
And now, the Yateses are spending their ninth Christmas in the Rim country.
"I remember how important family was back during my earliest Christmases, and you really sense that same thing here in Payson," Yates said. "I was just so totally impressed by the people who recently responded to the need for more community participation in the Angel Tree program. Within a day, all of those underprivileged children had been taken care of.
"I think the true Christmas spirit comes across in Payson in ways like that," Yates said. "A lot of the values that seem to have been lost in other places are still traditional here."