Selling Christmas trees in New York City seems like a hard job. It’s cold, for one. New Yorkers have that “reputation” for being tough customers and not always the friendliest, not to mention bargain hunters par excellence. And sitting outside a tree stand on an otherwise deserted street during the wee hours of the night shift sounds lonely, if not a bit scary. So what would ever possess a person — with a full-time job no less — to start selling Christmas trees?
Charlie Poekel, a Greenpoint resident who works a day job at a documentary film company, had for years been interested in the tree vending business. “A couple years ago, my roommate and I were trying to get a tree in Greenpoint at the stand across from Matchless,” he told us. “We went down at 11 at night and asked what time they closed. They actually don’t close because they don’t lock up the trees. I thought, Wow, this is such a unique job. I starting asking questions, and the next year, I went to a few more stands and asked some more questions. As a job, there’s really nothing like it.”
After volunteering at a couple of Greenpoint stands, Poekel decided to open his own this year, at a spot on the corner of Nassau and North Henry, across from McGolrick Park. This made for a marathon Thanksgiving Day (the vending season runs from Black Friday to Christmas), including a trek to pick up the trees, 8 hours of loading and unloading, a 30 minute break for Thanksgiving dinner, and then hours more to get back to Brooklyn and set up the stand. “By 6 a.m. we were finished, and then I kept going to work the first shift,” he said.
The stand operates with two shifts, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. Poekel is there mornings, evenings after his day job ends, and on weekends. His rotating staff of employees — friends who live in the neighborhood who are musicians, photographers, or between jobs — sit in at the other times.
“The hardest part was trying to decide what trees to get and how many and what sizes,” he said. “Turns out, we sell a lot of trees to first-time tree buyers. The couples or people who haven’t had a tree in quite some time, like since they were kids — they usually start small. There aren’t many people who get a 10-footer.”
Price is dependent on height, the tree itself, and any “flaws,” like a bald spot or weird top. Due to a law passed in the ’30s by the New York City mayor, as long as you don’t obstruct sidewalk traffic, you don’t need a permit — just permission from whomever owns the property upon which you’re setting up. Poekel brought in an RV to give his employees an escape from the cold. Bathrooms, however, mean a trip to a nearby bar or, he said, “I’ll leave that to your imagination.”
Stories tend to accumulate over the years, told from vendor to vendor, some of them real, some of them with the trappings of urban legend. “There’s one I heard from a tree guy,” he said. “Someone new was selling trees late one night. A good-looking girl came around, talked to him for 30 minutes or so, got him to sneak away, and gave him head in a nearby alley. When he came back, the story goes, every tree was gone.”
In another tale, “This woman sold a tree to a drunk guy three nights in a row. The first two nights the tree apparently didn’t make it home.”
For Poekel, the best part of the job is the people, and the neighborhood spirit the stand creates. “Kids love every tree in there; I could show them the Charlie Brown tree, and they’d love it,” he says. “Also, 90 percent of tree-vending jobs are worked by out-of-towners. I have nothing against people who come from out of town to do this, but most of that money is just leaving the city. There was something admirable in my mind about having locals working the stand. People think of New York as this cold city where you don’t give a stranger the time of day. But there’s a woman who brings us wine twice a week, and people bake cakes and bring hot cocoa and cider. People see me in the street and are like, ‘Hey, you’re the Christmas tree guy!'”
Some stands can be extremely lucrative, selling more than 1,000 trees in a season. Poekel’s first year meant a lot of first-time operating costs, so it remains to be seen whether he’ll make a profit, but either way, he says he’ll be there again next year: “A little kid smiling and asking if you work for Santa can just make your day.”
The last day to buy trees is Christmas Eve, so if you’re still in the market, head over, say hi, and pick one up.