By Patrick Wensink
“He’s a Southern gentleman, but he’s eccentric. I don’t know much about his past,” says Dorsie Fyffe, over the phone from his car in Texas. “But you can tell he probably did some theater, maybe played some banjo. Whatever he did before he did this, it probably wasn’t what we consider normal.”
Fyffe is describing his former boss, Jimmy Coan, the Christmas tree king of Austin. Forget Coan’s past, I’m pretty sure most people wouldn’t consider his current line of work all that normal, either. Selling Christmas trees ranks up there with running a fireworks stand or owning a corndog truck at the state fair in terms of oddball seasonal employment.
These are not Boy Scout or church group tree lots, cheerfully volunteering their time. We are talking guys who purchase truckloads, sometimes train car loads, of pine trees in order to earn a living every holiday season. The more I speak to the men performing this holliest, jolliest of jobs, the more I discover a bumper crop of fellas like Coan – some even further off the normalcy chart.
Each year, roadside tree lots seem to materialize out of thin air, just as we throw the turkey bones in the trash and wipe pumpkin pie stains from our shirts. We depend on these guys to deliver holiday spirit in conifer form, but we never look in the rearview mirror and think: isn’t it kind of odd that these fellas have a spare month to stand in the freezing cold and tie trees to car roofs?
“Your normal 9-to-5, khaki-pants-wearing guy isn’t going to put up with that. After two days, he’s leaving,” says Fyffe, who once lived in an RV on a tree lot for six weeks. “It just takes somebody with … a certain willingness to put up with things that are rough. It’s kind of like Survivor with Christmas trees.”
The biggest way it’s like Survivor is that Christmas tree selling is exclusive. Like sending off your tape to the reality show’s producers in hopes of a callback, one does not just saunter up to a neighborhood tree lot and offer his biceps and enthusiasm.
I have naïve plans of asking to donate some free labor in order to learn the tree-trimming trade from the inside. That dream dies on every lot I visit when its proprietor begins regarding me like all the others: with an impatient suspicion usually reserved for dinner guests who don’t take the hint to leave.
There is a strange secrecy to the entire business. Nobody will tell you how many trees they sell or how many they even set out for a season. Guys like me who ask a lot of questions are treated with both bafflement about why anyone would care and suspicion, like maybe I am a spy from a rival tree lot.
Tree sales are a lot less like Survivor with Christmas trees and a lot more like the Knights Templar with Christmas trees.
“The hardest part about this,” Ed says “is making people happy.”
The city has renamed this empty stretch of Witherspoon Avenue “Christmas Tree Lane.” If another lot closes, they
might have to consider a name change.
Ed is a large, graying man zipped into a snug camouflage jumpsuit designed for deer hunting. Ed has worked at Tommy Thompson’s Family Tree lot in Louisville, Kentucky for 15 years.
Thompson’s stand is an offshoot of his fruit market and springs up each November in a parking lot between a minor league ballpark and Interstate 64’s overpass. We are surrounded by scotch pine, douglas fir, white pine, and fraser fir arranged in long, wooden holding pens. The sweet smell of Christmas trees mixes with harsh exhaust fumes. It is dusk, the flood lights are on, and the air is just a notch above freezing.
Ed is referring to their customers – helping them figure out the right tree to fit their home and budget. He jokingly tells me about a woman who visits every year and, without fail, spends two hours stalking the perfect pine. Customers are hard to make happy, but Ed might as well be talking about the people running the entire pine-peddling industry.
I quickly learn they are an abnormal breed.
Bill has turned his back on me – literally. The gruff lot owner with a lion’s mane of grays and a pot belly was replying in only one-word answers until that famous tree seller’s hospitality kicks in. After I ask how he got into this line of work, he says “Money.” He continues facing away from me and goes completely silent until I leave.
It should be noted that we were in his office the whole time.
“Because it’s profitable,” says Gary Jecker, a friendlier, though still slightly suspicious, seller who always sets up shop directly across from Tommy Thompson’s lot.
“I think you have to have a certain personality. You do feel a little like maybe you’re treated a bit like a carny,” says Dorsie Fyffe.
I kind of expected a Bing Crosby soundtrack at these tree lots, but usually all you hear is the whirr of an electric chainsaw followed by sledgehammer plinks, driving a tree stand spike into another sale.
“At the height of my dad’s operation, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, before aluminum trees became a thing, he sold 50,000 trees in one year,” Tommy Thompson says with pride, raising his voice above the noise.
He is at his most chatty when the subject is the old days of tree dealing, back when his father called the shots. Thompson is tall and thin and bundled up this evening. His bushy eyebrows creep out from behind bulky lenses. He wears a colorful knit hat with ear flaps and several layers of windbreakers and fleece and a fuzzy blue scarf. He seems completely unaware of that runny nose.
“You don’t sell anywhere close to that now,” he says.
The city has renamed this empty stretch of Witherspoon Avenue “Christmas Tree Lane.” Once there were about nine vendors fighting for holiday dollars, but these days it’s whittled down to just Tommy and Gary Jecker. If another lot closes, they might have to consider a name change.
I ask Tommy if he and Jecker are rivals. He laughs a little and walks away a few steps, as if he needs to go count the wreathes or oil the chainsaw – anything to keep from talking about himself.
“We’re like the last circus travelling around the country. We’re the only ones left that don’t know when to quit or just give up.”
“It’s a hard job,” he says with a high voice ideal for bluegrass singing. “After he retired, my dad offered to pay me not to sell trees for the holiday season.”
I ask why.
Tommy mumbles, wipes his nose, and finally manages to get some distance between us.
Christmas tree lots are awkward by design. Consider it free advertising.
They normally spring up where rent is cheap: vacant buildings across from the train tracks, offseason fruit markets directly under a flight path, seedy parking lots adjacent to the downtown freeway. Try looking up one of these independent stands in your town. You can’t. They don’t exist online, except for a few regional chains like Jimmy Coan’s
Papa Noel lots. The fact that they suddenly appear in these strange places is meant to grab your attention.
It’s a sales tactic that must work. Over 30 million Christmas trees are sold each year in America. At about $50 to $200 a pop, it’s become a billion-dollar industry. Those are quite likely just sales that are on the books because there’s something decidedly off-the-grid about tree slingers. You get the impression these guys probably have some bizarre resumes, if they have one at all.
“He’s awesome. He’s a white guy, but he’s almost like a Native American hippy, but he doesn’t have long hair. He’s a country boy. He’s really cool. He just had this vision,” Fyffe expands on his admiration for the offbeat, entrepreneurial spirit of Jimmy Coan.
Fyffe has nothing bad to say about selling Christmas trees. He loved it and speaks of Coan like a scrappy, outcast uncle who went his own way to make a name for himself.
“It’s almost like being the ringleader of a circus.”
That big top mentality might work for a free spirit in Texas, but the holiday circus of tree sales has a decidedly different impact on Tommy Thompson.
A few days after our first talk, on a wet, cold Wednesday night on Christmas Tree Lane, I am reminded yet again that the hardest part about this business is making people happy.
Thompson is busy doing paperwork, so I kill time wandering the lot, sniffing trees, imaging presents beneath each one.
I chat with Jim, who has been working here for nearly a decade. I ask why he thinks his boss sells trees. “Oh, probably because his dad started the business in the ‘50s. I don’t think he can let that go.”
Finally, I spot Tommy inside a makeshift office – more like an ice fishing shack atop concrete – to ask if we can chat some other day when he isn’t so busy.
“I don’t want what you’re selling,” his high and lonesome voice fills the room.
My smile drops completely off the map. Where did this sudden distaste come from? Has he learned my wife and I own an artificial tree?
I ask Tommy why. “Because I might start wondering myself why I do it,” he says.
For a moment it seems like an extremely dry joke, but no, things really have gone south this quickly. He is now the second tannenbaum merchant in a week to freeze me out … except Tommy’s version of the cold shoulder involves a lot of nervous talking, like some sort of tic.
“It’s too personal. I don’t want to get into this with you,” he says.
I back off and apologize. I say it’s his choice.
Tommy stops and starts a few times, fidgeting with a manual calculator, pulling off the paper receipt. “We’re like the last circus travelling around the country. We’re the only ones left that don’t know when to quit or just give up.”
Gary Jenek does not seem to share Tommy’s sentiments. Jenek comes across as the most normal spruce jockey in town. We speak the next morning as a light winter rain starts falling. He wears a bold red outfit built to withstand a hurricane. He is pink-faced and clean-shaven beneath a checkerboard Elmer Fudd cap.
The smell of wet roadway overpowers the trees. Frequently – as we walk and talk down the sidewalk along Christmas Tree Lane, mere feet away from where Tommy Thompson might still be having a tree-induced existential meltdown – Gary smiles and waves and wishes customers a happy holiday.
Trees hang from white wooden racks, candy striped with red. They dangle from twine, spinning and swaying in the breeze.
As I mentioned, Gary is friendly but still doesn’t give the impression that he has much attention to give a guy like me, who has no intention of buying a needle-shedding bundle of Christmas cheer.
Gary began doing this over 30 years ago, so I figure he will have a good handle on the confusing circuitry powering a tree man’s inner system.
“It’s a business. I have five children and my wife doesn’t work, so I have to do something else. I mean, it’s a job. Everybody does something.”
Gary actually has full-time employment elsewhere. He is currently on vacation. Gary works for the River City Transit Authority and saves up his paid time off every year to sell Christmas trees.
That’s a big sacrifice, I say. Secretly wanting to say: That’s not normal, man.
“Well, that’s the way it is. And they love it. The boys … there’s one of my sons,” he motions toward a young guy in bright roadworker green. “My boys have always loved selling Christmas trees instead of going on vacation, right?”
“Made me the man I am today,” the young guy says, laughing, flexing.
“Yeah, right,” says Gary.
I sit in my car with the wipers running for a long while, directly between Tommy and Gary. The two poles of Christmas Tree Lane could not be more opposite. It’s as if on one side you have Frank Sinatra singing “Away in a Manger” and on the other is Jimmy Durante croaking out “Frosty the Snowman.” One is slick, professional, and a profitable endeavor. The other is ragged, emotional, flawed: the lovable underdog.
Worse, I still don’t know what fuels their woodchipper hearts. They all seemingly have nothing in common beyond the desire to make money. However, it’s not hard to think of at least a dozen warmer, saner, lower-risk ways to earn a living.
The car pulls away and it occurs to me that there’s actually one thin web that ties these Christmas lots together. There’s a strong sense of family wherever you look: whether it is Gary Jenek lugging white pines around with his kids, or Tommy Thompson being the son tasked with upholding his father’s business for reasons maybe he doesn’t even understand, or Jimmy Coan treating his RV-bound employees like his children (Coan paid for Fyffe’s bus ticket from Dayton, Ohio to Austin – no strings attached).
Christmas tree sellers all seem to be walking a line between scratching some entrepreneurial itch and keeping family close. That itself is a lot like Christmas. At the end of every December, we make sacrifices others might not for the sake of family. Just like this pine-scented brethren, most families aren’t what is generally considered normal.
No matter if it’s selling trees or surviving the holiday season, the hardest part is making people happy. There is no single way of getting there, even if you are a Southern gentleman eccentric banjo player.
Patrick Wensink is the author of five books, including the bestselling Broken Piano for President, and a journalist with work appearing in the New York Times, Esquire, and Men’s Health. His first children’s book, Go Go Gorillas!, is a dancing, rollicking tale… and a fantastic Christmas gift for the grandkids.