There’s something oddly romantic about those Christmas tree sellers. For a few weeks they spend 12-hour days outside in the freezing cold, then go home with (presumably) a wad of cash. It’s kind of like spending a summer on an Alaskan fishing boat, without the risk of losing your hands.
But is it really worth the time?
Last year, Charles Poekel, one-half of the music blog Chocolate Bobka, decided to get into the racket. He volunteered at a stand last year to learn the ins and outs of the business.
“Most tree stands in New York are run by two or three people total and by people who have been doing it for many years,” he explained. “There was no way anyone would pay me for just one or two shifts, so I did it for free. I told them I was writing a book and wanted first-hand experience.”
This year, he opened a stand in Greenpoint, on the corner of N. Henry and Nassau (it’s open till Christmas!), and surrounded himself with friends, many of them fellow music lovers. He shared a playlist of songs often played at the stand (here), and answered our questions on the basics of running one below, lest you get the crazy idea that you should become a seasonal tree seller too.
What can a person possibly make if they run a successful stand?
The tree stand business in NYC is very tight-lipped. It CAN also be very lucrative. So I really don’t want to go into numbers at all. If too many people opened tree stands it would ruin the business for everyone. Also, there isn’t really an accurate way to answer this. Everyone runs a stand differently and everyone’s operating costs differ. I’ll be lucky if I break even this year because of all the first-time operating costs and the possibility of left-over trees.
How hard is it to get a permit and find a good location?
One of the nice things about selling Christmas trees is you don’t need a permit. It’s a law Fiorello La Guardia passed in the 1930s. But you still need to get permission from surrounding neighbors and businesses, and of course the owner of the sidewalk you’re using. As well as follow proper business procedures for the State of NY and the federal government.
Finding a good location is the tough part. My best advice is keep an eye out on areas of the city that are developing quickly. My neighborhood in Greenpoint is a good example. Since I’ve moved there I’ve seen a corner store, a laundromat, and a pizza place all open up successfully so I thought maybe it’s time we got our own Christmas tree stand.
How many trees should you get?
Unfortunately this is an impossible question. There’s a stand not too far from me that sells over a thousand trees a season. There’s also one near me that sells a hundred trees each season. One thing to realize is that some people have been buying from the same stand for ten years. It will take a few years for a new stand to reach everyone in the neighborhood. From what I can tell though, we’ve sold a lot of trees to first-time buyers. Which makes me think a new stand does more to create new business than it does take business from others. My goal is to help these first-timers get the best experience possible so they come back again next year.
Where did you get your trees?
My trees come from all over the continent. Some come from Quebec, from Oregon, from North Carolina, and elsewhere. I picked them up from a wholesaler in a rented truck and delivered them to Brooklyn myself with the help of my brother, Will. We worked for 36 hours straight on Thanksgiving to get the stand up and running.
You have quite a few sellers–how many in all? And are they all your friends?
Well my stand is very un-traditional. Like I said a typical stand only has two or three sellers, and they work twelve hours a day, every day, until Christmas. I knew that if I wanted friends working there (which was a big concern to me) it would be nearly impossible to find people willing to dedicate that much time and energy. My shifts are still twelve hours long, but my employees work only a handful of them each week. In total I have eight sellers (three of them account for 90% of the shifts). They’re all either friends or acquaintances. Two of them run record labels (Underwater Peoples, Group Tightener), three of them play in bands (Byrds of Paradise, Tonstartbandht, Real Estate) and the rest are either writers, photographers, or simply unemployed. In my case I work full-time during the week, then at the stand on nights and weekends.
How did you entice them? Was it the money or the novelty, or both?
I only had two friends who agreed to work in advance. But once the stand opened and people saw the set-up, saw what the work entailed, it was easy to find the remaining six people. I like to think it was a mixture of excitement and money that enticed them. For some, I think the downtime is also appealing. One of my night guys reads a book every shift (he read Michael Crichton’s Sphere last night). For a lot of people it’s not an opportunity that comes along very often.
You got a pretty cool trailer to camp out in at the stand. Where did you find it? What will you do with it after the season?
Thanks! I found the RV on Craigslist (where else?). I had been looking for almost two months, constantly striking out. For my price range all I could afford was an old beat-up camper, but those are often the most popular since people like to restore them. The one I found is from 1979 and in pretty good condition. Luckily I was the first to call. When I picked it up two days later the guy said he got thirty-something voicemails after I first called.
The second part is the question I get asked the most. I have family in New Jersey and plan to store it with them.
What’s it like working 12-hour shifts?
It can be really hard at times. The night shifts are lonely. It gets cold, windy, and rainy. Your hands get caked in sap. Your back hurts, your shoulders hurt. I missed Thanksgiving to set up the stand. I’ll be there on Christmas morning to close it down. I’ve had entire racks of trees collapse, I’ve had generators break. You can’t always go to the bathroom. It’s tough to find food at 5 in the morning. etc etc. To put it in perspective, I’ve asked all my family members for massages for Christmas. The best comparison I can make is that it’s a little like owning a bar. Everyone thinks it will be awesome to own a bar, but in the end it’s tiresome, stressful, and all you do is try and make sure everyone else is happy at the expense of your own happiness.
What makes it bearable?
The people. What makes it unbearable? The people. Most of our customers show up with a really good attitude. But I also do my best to help nourish that. I try to make them forget they’re on a sidewalk in New York City. I also don’t shove Christmas down their throats (you’ll rarely hear Christmas music playing). Occasionally you get someone who’s pissed off and just looking to be rude. It’s tough to respond to that. Some people also seem to enjoy telling you your prices are too high, and that they can find “a tree at Walmart for much cheaper.” Sometimes I’ll ask them, “Do you go into a corner store and tell the cashier the cereal is too expensive? That they can find cheaper Cheerios at Walmart?” What this tells me is there’s no way this person can ever really appreciate a Christmas tree. In the end, you have to understand that the tree you put in your living room for three weeks was planted by a farmer, say, in Quebec eight years ago. Since then it’s been trimmed a few times a year and shipped essentially to your doorstep.
Other things that make it bearable: visitors, music (the RV has a tape deck built into it), crossword puzzles, twitter.
What’s the strangest tree-buying experience you witnessed this year?
One of my guys sold an 8-footer at 3am to a drunk couple coming home from the bar. My hope is that they woke up not remembering but at the same time not regretting.
One night I saw a guy browsing trees alone. I heard him start to speak and responded, but then noticed he was talking on a blue-tooth earpiece. He was taking cell phone pics of trees and emailing them to his girlfriend, who was telling him which trees she liked.
Would you do it again next year?
Absolutely. A good Christmas tree stand can be an invaluable part of a community, especially at a time of the year where it’s important for people to come together. It’s also a lot of fun.