Hidden Malcontents: New York’s Christmas Tree Industry

Scott Lechter, known as "Willie the Hat," operates Soho Trees at 6th Avenue and Spring Street in Manhattan, New York. Renting this land for more than $26,000 for the month, Scott and crew sleep in an RV parked adjacent the site. Soho Trees has been serving New York city for the last 22 years.
Wearing his signature hat, part-Indiana Jones, part-bowler, Scott Lechner had one cell phone squeezed between his ear and shoulder. In his right hand, a second phone rang as he tightly gripped a wad of dollar bills with his left.

Sitting at his temporary kitchen table, now covered with the day’s Christmas tree receipts, the owner of Soho Trees, one of New York’s largest Christmas tree suppliers, snuffed out his cigarette in a near-full ashtray. Lechner and two workers live in a rented R.V. parked adjacent to the Soho Trees’ lot on 6th Avenue and Spring Street, which also serves as headquarters, checkout and bank for their seasonal company.

“I’m in the thick of it right now,” Lechner said, between phone calls and issuing directions for the next tree delivery. “There’s never a down minute.”

While most New Yorkers are drawn to the glitter and nostalgia of the Christmas tree business, few see it for what it is: an exacting, complex and bitterly competitive industry. Vendors wage bidding wars each year over plots of land in city-owned parks and ink deals with local shopkeepers or property owners to construct their tree stands on the busiest sidewalks.

Once their signs are up and tree stands built, these yuletide vendors must carefully schedule their daily or weekly tree deliveries and conscript enough bodies to peddle the merchandise around the clock: snow or shine. For some, this can be an international operation, attracting workers from as far away as Canada and Australia. But while they all put on a merry face, the treemen have a history of bad blood and cutthroat business maneuvers.

Most of the city’s tree stands grace the sidewalks outside private shops and storefronts. Because New York City by-laws do not require Christmas tree vendors to register, their sites are secured through agreements with storeowners and property managers, according to those familiar with the process.

Vendors can also lease official city property through a silent bidding auction with the Department of Parks and Recreation. These locations, whether in large parking lots in residential areas, outside neighborhood playgrounds or on segments of Central Park’s walking paths, can cater to the family of four or to single New Yorkers. They also provide the Parks Department with nearly $194,000 in revenue, according to Philip Abramson, the Parks Department’s deputy director of public affairs.

Greg Walsh, a Christmas tree vendor since 1983, rented a spot in Cunningham Park in Queens four years ago because, at $795, it’s the cheapest of the city’s 21 rental sites.

“No one wanted it because it’s in a Jewish neighborhood,” said Walsh, surveying the parking lot, now home to more than 200 carefully arranged Christmas trees. “It’s finally starting to show a little profit.”

Walsh credits having a clean site, high-grade trees and a cheerful staff each year with creating revenue. But the park is only one of Walsh’s six locations, as he competes with prominent Christmas tree vendors throughout the city.

Scott Lechner, with 35 years experience selling Christmas trees, operates 11 stands in the city — three Parks Department properties and eight sidewalk locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn.

His prized site is Soho Square, the department’s most expensive location, which costs him nearly $27,000 for the five-week season. Some competitors feel Lechner overbid on the Soho site but Lechner said he’s not willing to risk losing the spot or his strong relationship with the community. After all, this connection means more profits each year, even if the operating expenses seem high to other vendors, he said.

“Some people can’t conceive of the costs,” said Lechner, who is known for offering Christmas shots, usually scotch, to his customers. “They won’t pay that much for city locations.”

That’s because gambling on a site with high rent increases the vendor’s risk of losing money. Just organizing the tree shipments from farm to market involves creating relationships with different tree farms throughout the U.S. and Canada, vendors said. Some trees, such as the Frazer fir are native to the east coast, while international favorite, the Canadian Balsam, many people’s “traditional” Christmas tree, is imported from Nova Scotia, Canada. The Douglas and Noble firs have to be shipped from the West Coast of the U.S., making them pricier.

“It’s not just a one month business,” said Lechner. “I spend seven months exploring different terrain looking for suppliers.”

However, the fickle economy of Christmas tree vending can create hostility between sellers, particularly as there are few guarantees of revenue.

“Some vendors will walk away from the season with 10 grand in profits,” said Lechner, whose Christmas trees range from $39 to more than $1,200. “Then again, you could easily lose 50 percent of your investment in a slow year.”

And the work needed to make a business a success comes at the cost of long shifts, the lift, lug and load of Christmas trees and an unstoppable schedule: most of this work is carried out by temporary workers.

Tree vendors employ workers from Kansas, Vermont, Milwaukee, Ohio, Texas or even Australia. Employers describe some members of the motley crew as drifters, free spirits, adventure seekers or moonlighters, brought together by the promise of a quick buck.

“At first I thought, what did I sign up for,” said Sherry Vogrig, originally from Australia, who was hired by Walsh in Cunningham Park and now lives in a trailer on site with two others workers.

One Christmas tree seller specifically even invites French Canadians to operate his many street-side stands because of some historic tradition of Canadian tree cutters bringing trees to market in 19th century New York, according to workers on site. However, all workers balance long hours with physically demanding responsibilities, often sleeping or napping in temporary booths, trailers or R.V.s near the tree lots.

“This is a hard business,” said George Smith, who started selling Christmas trees in Queens at age 10 to make enough money to replace his stolen bike, “We work 10-, 12-, 14- even 15-hour days.”

But behind the merry faces and cheerful greetings of New York’s Christmas tree workers lies a combative environment with significant distrust between the major tree vendors.

In 2007, Lechner claims an aggrieved ex-employee stole his Tribeca vendor site. Because this employee knew how much profit Lechner made, as well as the rent he’d paid to the city, the former employee was able to outbid him in the Parks Department’s silent auction. This “business backstab” as Lechner called it, forced Soho Trees out of a neighborhood that had welcomed it for years and created tension amongst the vendors in the city.

“Is it fair that in the fifth year, when you’re finally turning a profit, someone can outbid you?” said Walsh, who believes the Tribeca site was stolen from Lechner.

Many vendors are quick to caveat their concerns with comments about the merry Christmas spirit and the pleasure they get from making a family’s holiday wish come true. But the bitterness between competitors remains high.

“We shed blood on the Tribeca location,” said Lechner, the now-tattered delivery tags littering his R.V.’s floor. “In another generation, there would have been revenge. But I’m too old for that now.”


Note: Hidden Malcontents was originally published at www.citybeats.info.