If you’re the type that curses every time you pass a Dunkin’ Donuts, we’ve got some bad news: you may have bought your Christmas tree from a chain.
You wouldn’t know it from the name, but SoHo Trees doesn’t just do business at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Spring Street. Each year owner Scott Lechner oversees, give or take, nine locations throughout the city. He claims his stock of 2,500 trees is the largest in the country.
Even family-owned Greg’s Quality Christmas Trees serves other neighborhoods besides Williamsburg. After 25 years in the business, owner Greg Walsh has six stands in total – one in Manhattan, two in Brooklyn, and three in Queens.
But let’s face it, we’re not going to hold their success against these titans of trees – who are both native New Yorkers, after all. And they’ve got employees like John Roundcity, a musician who works at SoHo Trees when he isn’t restoring a wooden boat in Ohio (you can hear more about that in the video above).
And off of McCarren Park, Adam Matthews is living what, believe it or not, has been a longtime dream.
The 33-year-old Buffalo native is kind of a nomad. He’s done everything from snowboard instructing to commercial fishing to carpentry. In 2007, he was working as a bike messenger in New York City when he became “totally captivated by the whole Christmas spirit.” After spotting a tree vendor drinking yerba mate “out of the gourd and everything” (it’s his fave) he felt compelled to say hello.
It was then that her setup caught his eye, as he recalls: “I was like, ‘You’re living right here on the street and camping out?’ And she was like, ‘Yup! We live in the van, there are a couple guys in there right now.’ I [thought], ‘Man, that looks like fun!’ And so the seed was planted, and from that point I really knew that I wanted to do this.”
As they often are, Matthews’s first time was a disaster. He responded to an ad on Craigslist, and after securing the job over the phone, drove down from Buffalo in a used Winnebago he bought for the occasion only to arrive in NYC and be stood up. Not one to be easily discouraged, he tried again, this time landing himself a gig in Washington Heights as a night watcher, a standard job in this industry. “So I froze one winter and just roughed it and toughed it, sat out in the cold . . . watching these trees. . . . It was pretty dismal,” Matthews said, casting off a look like he’d only just recovered.
Determined to make a better go of it the next year, Matthews hit up Craigslist again, but this time he found Greg Walsh, a teach who Matthews described as “a larger than life personality,” and “very generous.”
Being a Christmas tree vendor, it turns out, is no different than any other job in that you have to pay your dues. Before landing the sweet spot he has now in McCarren Park, Matthews spent a windy, freezing winter “way out in Flushing” next to a 24-hour bowling alley. “That was like my rite of passage for Greg. I proved to him that I could run a stand, and I think he was impressed by the way I did it,” Matthews said.
Now in his third season at McCarren, he’s really found his groove. “This is the best spot in the city in my mind,” he said. “We get the sun all day, it’s in a lovely neighborhood, the people are friendly. We’re in cahoots with the businesses across the street so we get deals on meals, and people know us.”
It’s things like this that keep Matthews going. “You just got to stay motivated in this job because we don’t get paid by the hour or anything,” he said. They get paid instead by the season, and it’s not a predetermined amount. “We’re never disappointed when we go home,” Matthews said, keeping it vague.
In the off-season a few years ago, Matthews met his girlfriend Kristie Pearson – a 38-year-old elementary school teacher and fine-dining waitress – in Boulder, Colorado, and recruited her to join in the fun. This is now her second year doing it.
In addition to Matthews and Pearson, there is a night shifter, who hails from Canada, and a “part-timer,” who is actually more like what a full-timer is at most jobs – he gets in every day at 1 p.m. and leaves at 10 p.m. to go back to his apartment in downtown Brooklyn. The other three, without an apartment in the city to go home to, camp out on the premises (Matthews and Pearson in a trailer their boss rents out for them, and the night shifter in his van). They also have a “johnny-on-the-spot” as Matthews referred to it, and they’re hooked up to a local business’s power source, so they have heat, a hot plate, and other amenities.
Though intense, the season for Christmas tree vendors naturally doesn’t last long. They usually get there just before Thanksgiving to prepare, which means setting up the tent, the merchandise, and the lights; decorating local businesses, and of course getting the trees ready. Most of the trees at Greg’s Quality Christmas Trees are Fraser and Douglas Firs that come from a farm in North Carolina. They also get a batch of specialty trees (Nobles, Nordmanns, and Grands) from a farm in Oregon. The first weekend they were in town this year they sold a total of 216 trees.
Out of all of Matthews’s gigs, this has been the most steady. “I’d like to do some other more consistent work but I haven’t found things that I’m as passionate about that I want to keep going back to,” he said. “This job is too much fun for me to pass up every year!” Matthews and Pearson are off to Costa Rica next to work on a cacao farm, but they hope to be back next Christmas. We hope to see them.
Video by John Kapetaneas.