American Consequences - December 2017

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.

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.” 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.

The Weird and Secretive World of Christmas Tree Salesmen

68 | December 2017

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