What it’s like to sling Christmas trees round the clock in NYC
In the latest installment of our anonymous interview series, we talk with the people who
farm and sell you your Christmas trees.
Salesperson A has been farming in Canada and selling in Manhattan for eight years.
Salesperson B has been cultivating in Canada and flipping in Brooklyn for 10 years.
Salesperson C has been a harvester in Virgina and purveyor in Brooklyn for six years.
SALESMAN A: My business partner and I are from Canada. We work in the silviculture industry. We plant trees on the industrial level. After they’ve been logged down, we go back and reforest the area. Some of that translates into Christmas tree sales. Up there, not everybody is in the same boat. Usually, people are just seasonal workers. But come fall, there’s less work to be done, so we go down to New York.
A while back, I met someone else who was in the same industry. I was planting trees with him and he was looking for a new partner. I had a mini van. I was sleeping in the car. So, I signed on. Later, he stopped doing it and it was me who had to find a new partner. It’s been eight years.
SALESMAN B: I do mostly seasonal work. I did a little bit of fruit picking back on the West Coast of Canada. I’ve also been doing tree planting for the last 10 years. It’s natural I’d get into selling Christmas trees. At some point, usually around November, you finish crop harvesting and have some time on your hands.
I was like okay, “Winter is coming, I have nothing to do, my friends say this is cool, let’s give it a shot.” I traveled to New York to sell Christmas trees, and it fit perfectly with my yearly schedule, so I kept doing it. One job ends and the next one begins almost immediately. I’m from Canada, so there’s always a little break in seasonal farming jobs.
SALESMAN C: I worked for someone else who was doing this six years ago. Then I started my own stand with my current business partner. We’ve been at this site for five years. These are our trees. We harvest them every year from Virginia. We’re all New Yorkers here.
SALESMAN A: You never know when a day’s going to end. Every day is different. We’re open 24 hours. My partner works the day shift and I cover the night shift. I work from dusk till dawn, when she takes over. Somebody’s got to be out here at all times because you can’t just pack the place up. People are surprised by that, but we’ve got 300 trees here at any given moment. Where are we going to put them all? We’re not going to rent an apartment for a month in New York. We’d end up losing money just on paying rent.
The trees come at night, loaded into big semi-trailers. They drop them off in the street and you’ve got to hurry and clear the road, wrap them, and stack them. We get trees on a daily basis. Everything is coordinated. We move most of the trees during the day, but then again, I’ve done 2:00 am deliveries.
We have guidelines for payment. We’re instructed that it’s x amount per foot. You get over a certain size bracket and you’re going to be paying a lot more. The bigger the tree, the more expensive it gets. Trees are priced not on a linear scale, but on more of an exponential curve. Think of it this way: more time and resources are involved in growing it, farming it, maintaining it, shipping it. Once you get over 10 to 12 feet, the trees start to become quite pricey. But we also have the misfit trees we can sell cheaper because no one wants an imperfect specimen. If you want to spend a little less, you can always get one with a bad side and put it against a wall. We try to help people out as much as we can while staying within our parameters. We can’t sell the tree at a loss. If we start doing that, they’ll come down on us, especially if we’re working in an affluent neighborhood.
SALESMAN B: We work around the clock. It’s too much of a job to pack everything up. At night, the pedestrian traffic slows down a little bit, except for on the weekends. And so we have the room to work and unwrap trees and sweep and everything. Somebody’s working at night. Somebody’s working in the day. People are always doing rotations. Depending on the size of the stand, there are two or three people rotating at any given point.
The day person wakes up in the morning, surveys what’s been done at night and finishes anything the night person didn’t have time to finish. Typically, that means sweeping the ground of needles so the neighbors don’t complain and doing a little arts and crafts preparation. Customer service is a big part of the role, especially when it picks up—you have to walk people through their options in terms of the types and sizes of trees.
The night person usually wakes up in the evening, and tries to find some decent breakfast just as kitchens are restaurants are switching over to the dinner menu. Usually, you help the day shift person finish up their sales. Then, you sweep again. Then, you wait for the new stock to come in. That always happens at night because the traffic is slower.
The trees are constantly being replenished with fresh ones. People assume that we just show up with a single load of trees at the start of the season, but that’s not the case at all. Our trees are meant to last past Christmas into New Years.
SALESMAN C: My routine is clean, clean, and clean some more. We unwrap the trees. We sell the trees off the street. We do deliveries. We sell mistletoe. We make wreaths. This is all going on 24/7. We have a night guy, who comes in at 11:00 pm and goes home about 8:00 or 9:00 am. The normal folk are here during the day, and the crazy folk are here at night. We have a delivery bicycle, which is a large cargo vehicle with a piece of plywood on it. We do between three and five deliveries a day.
SALESMAN A: Some people think you’re their maid. They expect you to wrap it, and carry it, and decorate it for them. Others have an attitude problem. I almost told a customer years back to go fuck himself. He was such an asshole. He almost made me cry. He was, like, this rich Wall Street guy, and he had two friends with him, so you know he was on his little power trip, showing off to them. He just kept making me open the biggest trees I had; I think I went through six in a row. And the whole time, he kept criticizing my trees and swearing at me, yet insisted on sticking around. He was trying to make me feel stupid. I knew I could make a lot of money on that sale, so I had to take it. I almost snapped. But I’m proud that I managed to keep it together.
This year, it’s better, but there was a point where I had like three or four successive customers grinding on me. I was on my knees working, and this woman kept complaining while I was trying to help another customer. I just looked at her and said: “There are other Christmas tree stands for blocks in every direction. If you don’t like what you see, go complain to those people, but don’t waste my time.” She goes, “Oh, I’m coming back.”
You meet all sorts of characters. I once sold a $200 tree to a guy who turned out to be Jewish. He called it his “Hanukkah Bush.” Another time, this couple came out of the bar across the street after last call, and the dude just forked over $120 to buy a tree for his girl. Some people are just super nice. One guy buys trees for all of his friends and clients, and decorates them himself. He offered us to come up and take a shower and watch TV. Occasionally, you even get a celebrity.
Everybody thinks they can haggle. I don’t understand why, but they all expect us to give them a deal. I guess since there isn’t a literal price tag that you can scan, they think we’re making up the prices. A lot of people suspect we’re chiseling them or something. But no. This is what we’re working with and we’re doing what we can. I’m more than willing to work with people. If I show them a tree and they’re like “Well it’s got a big gap here.” I’ll be like, “Well, of course it does. That’s a discount.” But some people will show up and think they can get a beautiful, flawless tree for a bargain. They’ll see a $120 tree and say, “Will you take $80?” That’s like a 40% discount.
SALESMAN B: There are always picky customers. Obviously, people have the right to choose, but sometimes they’ll go over the limit trying to optimize their decision. I’ve stood in the pouring rain for 45 minutes holding two trees in my arms because somebody couldn’t decide. The whole time I’m thinking, “Please just make a choice. Or come back and see me when you’re ready.”
Some people are simply rude. Other people think that by insulting you, they’ll get a discount. Others like to use their position as bargaining power, like “I’m a policeman” or “I’m a postman.” That’s not how it works. I’d rather give a break to someone who doesn’t have a good salary. It’s more amusing than anything. The classic scenario is a woman sends a man to get a tree, and she’s not happy with his decision so she comes back and yells at us. Like, your husband picked it, not me dude.
SALESMAN C: I don’t get too many bad customers, but weird stuff has happened. Last year, we had to ride on top of an elevator in the elevator shaft because the tree wouldn’t fit in the stairwell or inside the elevator. It was one of those old hand-operated elevators. We had to balance this 13-foot tree and pull it into the apartment on a diagonal. It was actually really fun.
Christmas tree harvesting in the United States
Total trees harvested in 2002
Total trees harvested in 2007
Total trees harvested in 2012
SALESMAN A: One thing I’ve learned is that there’s no average customer. We have lots of families, obviously. But other than that, it varies. You get everybody from those living on a fixed income to those living in a penthouse. It’s the season of giving, so we try to help people out, by getting them a tree they’re happy with at a price they’re willing to pay. You’d think these New York neighborhoods are full of one type of person, but once you spend a week on the street you realize it’s all across the spectrum.
I like meeting new, different people. I would never have the opportunity to meet these types of people in Canada. Another perk is all the gestures of kindness. Every year, after Thanksgiving, the guy across the street comes down with a cheesecake. Another guy bought us dinner. Our garbage man’s wife cooked pasta for us. Another lady grabs all the trimmings and brings us food in exchange. It’s nice to be embraced by the community. We have no roots here. A nearby bar was like, “Hey, if you need to use the washroom. We’re open late. Come on up.” So we’ve been quite welcomed.
SALESMAN B: I enjoy seeing new families or just-married couples picking out their first tree. As a parent myself, I especially like to see the look on the children’s faces. That makes my day every time. A couple of days ago, a mother and grandmother came to pick out a tree with three kids. I was worried because the tree was pretty heavy and the women weren’t that tall. And these three little kids pick up the tree and carry it home. They were probably four or five years old. They looked like three little leprechauns.
We took over this stand from another guy who retired. People really, really liked him. In general, they like to see the same person every year. This is my 10th year, so people know me by now. Last year, I came with my daughter. She had just turned one and was learning to walk. This year, my customers are like, “Where’s your daughter?” It’s nice to know they remember. Sometimes people like to walk through the stands to smell that fresh scent. I like to see that.
SALESMAN C: It’s gotten more joyful for me over the years. It’s become less about hard work and more about enjoying the day-to-day experiences and interactions. We’ve developed longstanding relationships with members of the community. I especially like watching people have kids and seeing the kids grow up—it’s like a snapshot every year.
It’s nice to witness a stretch of sidewalk that people ignore 11 months out of the year transform into something lively and festive. Catching people walking by on their phones and pausing to take in the scene always puts a smile on my face. I think that’s the main perk for me.
Top five states for Christmas tree harvesting in 2012
Top five states by the number of Christmas tree sales operations
Back to reality
SALESMAN A: Now that I have a kid, things are different. It’s hard to work and take care of her at the same time because this is an all-in, non-stop, month-long gig. We live on a farm, so she’s walking everywhere—in the forest, in the barn, in the house. I was too worried she’d walk into the street, so I didn’t bring her this time. Plus, I don’t have any time to take her to the park or the library. I imagine this job is about as intense and consuming as running one of those Halloween stores.
SALESMAN B: After the holiday season ends, I go back home. I take a whole week for myself, just to unwind. I hang out with my daughter. I read books. I watch some movies. The rest of the winter, I go to work on a logging farm, where I cut firewood. In spring, sugar maple season starts, which is very Canadian. I work tapping the trees and boiling the syrup. Come summer, it’s farming. Usually around April or May, I go back to the forest and plant more trees.
SALESMAN C: The people who work here are all actors, musicians and performers. Most of us are native New Yorkers. Last year I lived in Oregon and was literally a lumberjack. But generally, unlike most people in the business, we don’t sleep in vans. We’re not slumming it or roughing it nearly as much. We’re a bunch of dandies. We like to go home and have a hot shower at the end of our shift. We hire people more based on their ability to connect with the customer base than to lift heavy objects or saw through wood.