By Jeff French Segall
On November 22nd, at 12:08 a.m., Colby Grant and his nightman Henry Woodard pulled in from Vermont and began constructing their hut and Christmas-tree stands outside St. Martin’s Tower, an apartment building at the corner of Columbus Avenue and 90th Street.
By 2:20 a.m., their little red shack with its green roof was built, wired, and the frames for holding the not-yet-arrived Christmas trees were mostly completed. Colby’s fourth season of selling in this spot was underway.
By the next day, Colby’s company, Uptown Christmas Trees, had loaded the racks, and, by nightfall, Colby and Henry had sold a couple of hundred Frasers and Balsams, brought by a long trailer carrying around 1,000 trees.
As in years past, Colby, 32 years old and usually smiling, indulged this curious reporter.
WSR: What is it about this location that brings you back to West 90th Street, year after year?
Colby: We really like the neighborhood; everybody is super friendly. It’s a nice, big location.
WSR: Do the other sellers like their locations?
Colby: Yes. They’ve been doing this a long time like I have. They’ve built up good relations with the people where they’re set up. I’ve worked for 15 years for this company, but only four years here on West 90th. Before that, I was the guy who drove the truck to each location at night to resupply them.
WSR: Tell us about that.
Colby: Every night, between midnight and 6 a.m., I had to resupply each of our 20 sites. But working here, selling trees, is much more interesting. Back then, I had to drive to each location throughout the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, Harlem, Inwood, and Fort Washington.
WSR: About how many trees do you think will be purchased here this year? And in all your locations?
Colby: I figure around 1,500-2,000 trees will be purchased at this location, and a total of 20-30,000 throughout all the others.
WSR: Where do these trees come from?
Colby: Some come from large, multi-thousand-acre farms in North Carolina. Others from Vermont and Canada.
WSR: How expensive are your trees? What differentiates the prices?
Colby: Trees run anywhere from $50 all the way up to $600. The least expensive are 3-4-foot-tall balsams. The most expensive are the 13-footer balsams. We sell mostly Frasers and Balsams with a few white pines. We’re also getting in the Normandy, which is a variety of Noble fir, a boutique-style Christmas tree. It looks different than most of the others; it’s about 7-8 feet tall.
WSR: Which are your best sellers?
Colby: The Frasers because of their strong branches and they hold their needles well. The Balsams also sell well because of their pleasant smell.
WSR: Do you pay to stay at this location? Do you need a permit from the city?
Colby: The company has a business arrangement with the building. They provide electricity for our heating and lighting as well as bathroom facilities. No city permits are required to sell religious objects on the streets of New York, and by statute, Christmas trees are considered “religious objects,” so, therefore, the answer is no, it is not a requirement.
WSR: How do you and your night man divide your time here?
Colby: I arrive by 8 a.m. and stay until around 9-10 p.m. Henry shows up at 7 p.m. and takes over the night shift. When off duty, the sellers head to one of the three Harlem temporary apartments that the company has rented for us to sleep in from Thanksgiving until Christmas.
WSR: Do you mind some personal questions
Colby: Not at all.
WSR: How did you get started in this business and what do you do when not selling Christmas trees?
Colby: My family was friendly with the company’s owners. My mom and dad sold Christmas trees for them before I was born and continued until I turned 16, so I eventually followed suit. From January through the end of April, maple-syrup production keeps me busy for a few months. I’m in charge of 25,000 maple trees, making sure the tubing originating from the taps on them leading down to the factory, which we call the sugarhouse, are ready to receive the sap when it starts to flow any time from February on. After the maple syrup season is over, I’m busy building stone patios and stone walls.
WSR: Are you married? Have any children?
Colby: Yes and yes. My daughter is eight years old.
WSR: Does she want to sell Christmas trees?
Colby: If that’s what she’d like to do, it will be her choice and fine with me. About a third of the tree sales force are women and they are terrific salespeople….a lot better than some of the men.
WSR: Talk a bit about your night man.
Colby: I hired Henry about three years ago. He’s good. He lives a couple of towns away from me and his family owns their own maple syrup manufacturing concern on their property. I think he brought a few bottles down here to sell. Ask him if you get a chance.
WSR: I think I will. Thanks a lot and have a great season!
Great story. I hope they have a lucrative season and a safe trip back home.
Nice story, Jeff! I love your work on the Rag.
It’s good to be nice. The food delivery driver in last week’s story also said people in the neighborhood are nice. Good job UWS.
How interesting. The great interviewing taught me about Christmas trees and those who bring the trees to the UWS. The photos were wonderful additions.
Wonderful story. Thx Jeff.
Thank you for the insights WSR.
Did not realize trees are statutorily protected “religious objects.” Do Santa hats also count?? (I know trees are Christmas-specific, and traditional, and I love the smell – but ‘religious’ they are not, except apparently in a commercial sense.) Some upstate and out of state tree farm companies found a good lever to push, I think. As ever, between the “loopholes by statute” and the on-the-block “arrangements,” a healthy entrepreneurial spirit thrives.
Question, legal readers: If more street vendors were aware of this, could any joint stand, scarf stall, or churros cart have crucifix key chains or desk-sized trees, or little crèche figurines amongst their wares and qualify all year – with no fear of cops coming to chase them off? Anyone know more about that statute? Life is tough for many vendors.
The exemption is specific to the items. If you only sell religious objects however they are specifically defined by statute, you’re ok. ( not tshirts with christmas trees) But selling other items would require a permit or risk fines or being shut down.
Answering own question: looks like the exemption is for “Christmas Trees in December” and other specific cases:
You don’t need a General Vendor License to sell:
Newspapers, periodicals, books, pamphlets, or other written matter
Artwork, including paintings, photographs, prints, and sculptures
Items at a garage sale on private property
Merchandise from a booth or stand at a street fair, block party, or festival
Christmas trees on public sidewalks during December (you can’t block the sidewalk and need the owner’s permission if you’re in front of a business)
Plants and flowers on public sidewalks on the day of the Asian Lunar New Year and during the seven days before