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Christmas Cheer, Delivered (Up to 10 Blocks) | City meets country when Vermont tree sellers hit the streets of New York

Written by Vermont Life on . Posted in Web Exclusives

This story appeared in the Winter 2012–13 edition of Vermont Life magazine, and will be available to read for free for a limited time. To subscribe to Vermont Life, and get stories and photographs like these delivered to your door each quarter, click here.

Story by Sky Barsch

Photos by Jon Vachon

Bud Vana is immortalized in the holiday photographs of strangers — the nice young man from Vermont who carried a heavy balsam fir several blocks to their Brooklyn apartment in unpleasant winter weather.

Adam Parke of Barton, Vermont, sells Christmas trees in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn.

For many families in Pearl River, N.Y., Fred Salo, of the Northeast Kingdom, is as much a part of their Christmastime tradition as a turkey dinner, even though they only see him once a year.

Vermonters — tree farmers, wholesalers and retailers — have found a niche market selling Christmas trees in the New York City metropolitan region, where evergreens can retail for more than $100. The amount seems shocking compared to tree prices at a farm in Vermont, but there are many more steps along the way, including transportation and accommodations. And the work is tough and grueling. There are long hours on one’s feet; cold, unpredictable weather; the physical demands take their toll (“I was exhausted beyond anything I’ve ever felt before,” Vana says. “I must have lost about 10 pounds doing it.”) and it’s dirty (“Every night when I took off my shirt I would have a necklace of needles around my neck,” he continues, “and many needles in my hair.”) There’s a dark side to the business, too, as sellers, especially in Manhattan, sleep by their trees to prevent theft.

But selling Christmas trees in the city region is rewarding, and not just financially. Vermonters can have a change of pace from country living, and they can be part of what is generally a warm, special moment for families.

“It’s kind of a harbinger of Christmas when we set up down there,” says Salo, who has been selling trees in the greater New York City area for more than three decades. “Some have bought from me for 35 years. On the flip side, there are some people who don’t show up, and you surmise they are no longer with us.”

Salo brings a tractor-trailer full of his farm’s balsam and Fraser firs (though many of his customers refer to them as “pine”) and sells for three weeks beginning around Thanksgiving in a city park. Others, like Vana, are part of a resale operation, buying from wholesalers, filling a U-Haul, and retailing on sidewalks throughout Brooklyn. (Vana worked when he was between undergraduate and medical school, piecing together part-time jobs.) These Vermonters help customers choose the right tree for their home, basing it on size, fullness and aroma. They then saw off the bottom for a fresh cut, wrap the tree, and tie it on top of the customer’s car, or in the city, deliver it by foot (up to 10 blocks).

Adam Parke, a tree grower from Barton, sells a total of 4,000 to 5,000 each year at eight locations in Brooklyn. He and his crew, about a dozen full-time employees and 10 part-time workers, are busiest on the weekends, and sometimes work until 1 or 2 a.m. setting up trees in customers’ apartments (he sells stands, too). There’s little luxury, even for Parke, who sleeps on the floor, “lined up like sardines” in an apartment owned by a woman whose son was involved in Glover’s Bread and Puppet Theater. Parke has been selling in New York for over a decade, and has learned the various neighborhoods and plans accordingly — taller trees for the more well-to-do neighborhoods where apartments are more likely to have higher ceilings; smaller, more economical trees for working-class neighborhoods. “Hipsters,” Vana said, “were always looking for the scrawniest Christmas trees — Charlie Brown types — and some were disappointed with our fairly healthy trees.”

>>RELATED: To see a slide show of Christmas tree farms in Vermont, click here.

One thing Parke doesn’t have to coordinate is city permits. New York City law allows “coniferous trees” to be sold during the month of December — a fact he often has to educate inquiring law enforcement about.

His trees are popular with Vermonters now living in New York, including the many Middlebury College graduates who live in Brooklyn Heights

“Everybody down there has a Vermont story,” Parke says. “They’re constantly asking us questions about Vermont, asking where we live in Vermont. And they just can’t imagine we live way up near the border. We get a lot of people asking if we’re anywhere near the New Jersey line.”

New Yorkers enjoy the holiday cheer dispensed by Adam Parke of Windswept Farm in Barton. Parke often takes the trees to customers' apartments, though a baby stroller can also provide urban transit.

There’s an art to selling, which includes careful planning to have a variety of sizes, shapes and price tags, and salespeople can’t be pushy — customers want to feel that they have chosen their tree. Vana found that regardless of religion or ethnicity, a family’s first child was inspiration to get a Christmas tree, even for people who never had one growing up.

“There’s a certain excitement about getting ready to go down to the Christmas tree lot, and planning your inventory and price range,” Salo says. “Years like this where it’s a little tougher, do you bring more cheaper tress? It — getting ready to do battle, as I refer to it — can be fun, and I never take it for granted.”

Dressed in his hammed-up Vermonter “uniform” (a Vermont bumper sticker slapped on a T-shirt, worn over old cross-country skiing clothes; wild, longer-than-usual hair and beard), Vana found himself posing for photographs, acting as an unofficial Vermont tourism spokesperson and the confidante of sentimental fathers. Haggling over size and price wasn’t uncommon (though at $15 a foot in Brooklyn, that’s not surprising). In that fashion, Salo likens himself to a bartender: With emotions running strong during the holiday season, he sees a lot of joy, but sometimes customers are down and share sad news.

But the adventure, income and fun are worth it. Salo points to a time when one of his salespeople received a $10 tip from a person who looked at several trees, but didn’t even make a purchase. Vana received cash, but also unusual tokens of gratitude, including a nice glass of bourbon and tickets to see Wilco and Neil Young at Madison Square Garden.

“If I weren’t in medical school, I’d try to figure out a way to do it every year,” Vana says. “It just felt good. There were no bad parts of the experience, in that not even the haggling customers could bring down the joy of giving people a little bit of Christmas spirit and cheer.”

This story appeared in the Winter 2012–13 edition of Vermont Life magazine, and will be available to read for free for a limited time. To subscribe to Vermont Life, and get stories and photographs like these delivered to your door each quarter, click here.

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