Photographer Natalie Fertig wraps up the Christmas tree-selling season by talking to New York’s sidewalk vendors, many of whom hail from north of the border, work shifts that last much of the day, and sometimes sleep in a van. There are benefits, too: the travel, after-hours camaraderie, drinks, and, if you’re on the Upper West Side, a smörgåsbord of dinner options from the people who live in the buildings around you.
Nancy, an osteopathic doctor from Quebec, has been selling trees outside the Key Foods in Park Slope for 12 years. What began as a college job has now become an annual tradition. “There are lots of kids I’ve seen in mother’s belly, and now they’re 12. That’s the great part about it, actually,” she says. “They remember, Thanksgiving is coming, Nancy’s going to be around.”
Daniel Richman, 18, and his brother are selling trees in New York City for the first time. The brothers from Quebec have spent the month working in shifts, one sleeping in a van parked around the corner while the other mans the 24-hour booth. “We don’t really have time to hang out,” said Richman. “Believe it or not, we get sales at 2 a.m. sometimes.” Despite the long hours and uncomfortable conditions, Richman says the best part is the New Yorkers, who have been very kind to him.
Brian Marion, a tree vendor from Brooklyn, works for a local, family-owned tree business that sells trees from Quebec and North Carolina. After Christmas, any extra trees will be taken to Rikers and composted, Marion explained.
Marion says everyone who comes by his tree stand is really nice — with one exception. “SantaCon: They’re just really bad with the trees,” he says. After Christmas, Marion will return to his regular job as a bartender in Sheepshead Bay.
Phil, from Quebec City, shows a tree to a customer at his tree stand on Sixth Avenue between Washington and Waverley. Phil, who didn’t want to use his last name because his business is all under-the-table, explained that payment is all based on commission, and usually works out to around $14-$15 per hour. This tree runs about $70. A few blocks over in the West Village, Phil says, the same size tree might go for $200.
Phil helps a customer with a small tree. Parked nearby is the SUV he sleeps in when he isn’t working his typically 16- to 17-hour shift. “At this point now we don’t have any more spirit,” Phil said. “It wasn’t an easy season this year.” Phil and his fellow vendors will head back to Canada on the evening of the 25th. After a busy first week, sales dipped on his corner.
A reindeer sits at Phil’s booth on Sixth Avenue. The owners of the company want all their employees to make the reindeer out of the castoffs, so they divide their time between crafts and managing the trees.
Phil nets a sold tree. He said the hardest thing is when customers ask for delivery and don’t tip. “They think they already paid for it,” he said, “but you’re losing a sale here because you’re out for delivery.”
A woman holds a netted tree at Phil’s booth on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
Decorative evergreen branches sit waiting to be purchased at a Christmas tree booth in the West Village.
Franny Goly (pronounced Jolly), 28, helps a customer with a Christmas tree base at her booth in the West Village. Goly has been selling trees for eight years.
After Christmas season, Goly will spend time at home in Quebec, then head to Australia and British Columbia to pick fruit. She enjoys the physical work and the travel. “It’s a good workout,” she said. “You don’t need to go to the gym!”
Charles Peloquen, 33, from Montreal, poses with a $400 tree at his tree stand on the corner of 110th and Broadway on the Upper West Side. A carpenter by trade, he became involved through his brother, who has run the booth for the last four years. It’s Peloquen’s first year. “A lot of people like us here,” he said. Regulars have recently begun a competition for who can bring the sellers the best meal. “Chili, rice, salad, wine, everything,” said Peloquen. “Some people just stand there and sell the trees and don’t put a lot of love into it. But we like to put in a lot of attention.”
Beth Campbell, 38, from Michigan by way of Missouri, came out to work for a Vermont company that operates 17 different stands throughout the city. A building contractor and masseuse during the rest of the year, Campbell finds that this job coordinates perfectly with the off-season in the construction business.
Campbell prepares her booth on 111th and Broadway for an ensuing storm. It’s her first year selling trees, and she’s had a great time. The company puts all its employees up in apartments it owns, and the pay is good, she says. Most of all, she enjoys Morningside Heights. “There really are intact neighborhoods,” she said. “It’s been a blast getting to know people.”
Marelie Paquette, 21, has made great friends from her booth in Astoria. One new friend who lives nearby let her shower in his apartment, and others have invited her out for drinks.
Paquette talks with a customer on the corner of 32nd and Ditmars in Astoria. She heard about selling trees through other friends in Quebec, where she is from.
Paquette came with her brother to sell trees, and while she has loved New York City, she says she most misses nature, which comes in abundance in her small hometown. The other day, she stumbled upon Astoria Park and said it was amazing. “Trees! I was like, ‘Amazing! Finally!’ I don’t know how you guys do it!” After Christmas, she plans to stay in the city…and visit its parks.