By JULIE CHURCH, Times Staff Writer
PALM HARBOR -- Wal-Mart shoppers hoping to take advantage of the three-pack sock deal in menswear Friday afternoon were out of luck.
A white wedding arch straddled the aisle between the men's Farah socks (three for $5) and the Wrangler denim shorts ($12.93).
A crowd gathered in front of the flowered ladies' pajamas and the Kathie Lee Gifford sportswear collection to witness the marriage of Mark Champagne and Debra Bechtel.
The couple met at the Wal-Mart on the corner of Alderman Road and U.S. 19 in North Pinellas. They work together at the store and chose to exchange vows there.
"I noticed her and thought she was cute," he said.
But it wasn't until he moved to the area last year and got a job in the garden department that they started dating.
Champagne popped the question last October on Pier 60 in Clearwater.
Then the planning began.
They were having difficulty finding a hall that wasn't booked when store manager Mark Telfer had an idea.
"My boss brought it up actually," Mrs. Champagne said. "He said, 'You guys met here, why don't you get married here?' "
Having the ceremony at Wal-Mart also allowed the couple to include everyone on their guest list.
"I starting making my list and it included just about everyone in the store. I thought it would be different and it would be fun," Mrs. Champagne said.
"Everyone works here," she said. "The guy walking me down the aisle, the woman performing the ceremony, the maid of honor and the best man, everyone."
Music from Mad about Classics, a CD the store sells, was piped through the store using equipment from the electronics department. The silk peace lilies and stone pedestals resembling swans were from the garden center and the crafts department.
Judy Smith, a former crafts department employee, made the bride's dress. The princess-cut diamond engagement ring and the gold wedding bands were bought at Wal-Mart.
"We get everything we can from Wal-Mart," Mr. Champagne said. "With three kids and a mortgage payment, we need the discount."
It was the second marriage for both. Mrs. Champagne's three children from her first marriage, Tabitha, 16, Tiffany, 14, and Jimmy Bowens, 13, stood up for their mom at the ceremony.
Carol Case, who works in customer service, is a licensed notary public for her other job -- working for a divorce attorney.
She has performed 14 or 15 weddings for Wal-Mart associates or their children. She shed her blue Wal-Mart vest Friday for a gold, floor-length gown.
"I love doing these weddings," she said. "It's a great excuse to get a new dress."
Katherine Tomaski and Etta Gannon attended in shorts and stood behind a cart full of paper towels and other household items. Friends of the bride who visit the store several times a week, they decided to get in a little shopping while waiting for the ceremony to begin.
"This is my favorite Wal-Mart," Tomaski said. "People are like family here."
A collective "oohhhh" came from the crowd of about 100 people as Mrs. Champagne rounded the corner near the cash registers in a white satin gown trimmed in lace and beads. A few people cried as she moved down the aisle.
Little did they know she almost tripped.
"My dress got caught on a (display) and I nearly lost it," she said after the 15-minute ceremony.
After a reception at the Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center, the couple is off to the Bahamas for their honeymoon.
Because the couple is registered on the Wal-Mart Web site, they expect a majority of their gifts to come from Wal-Mart as well.
While the idea of marrying in a Wal-Mart is novel, it certainly isn't unheard of, said corporate spokeswoman Sharon Weber.
She's aware of several weddings, including an 83-year-old greeter who met and married her husband at a Wal-Mart.
"They first laid eyes on each other across a shopping cart," Weber said.
She said two customers once met in the toilet paper aisle and held their ceremony in that same aisle.
As Mr. and Mrs. Mark Champagne faced the crowd for the first time as husband and wife Friday, the crowd recited the Wal-Mart cheer.
"W-A-L-M-A-R-T!" they yelled. "Who's No. 1 today? Debbie and Mark!"
Then they walked arm-in-arm from the store, and the employees returned to their stations, while shoppers returned to their carts in search of a bargain.
-- Julie Church can be reached at (727) 445-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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