I was feeling a creative slump post-Thanksgiving Day so I came up with the idea to photograph and interview the people working at Christmas Tree stands in New York City. The people I met were passionate and really enjoyed their jobs, and in the case of the Romp Family, they have been there for 30 years. I always had a curiosity about what would drive somebody to leave their homes and travel from far away to spend a month living along a New York City sidewalk in the wintertime.
Greg’s Tree Stand
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York
Frankie: What’s your name?
Shaun: Shaun Nakamine
F: Is there any truth to a Christmas Tree shortage this year?
H: To what I’m told there is. And if we think about it the climate is altering and changing every day and every year I think it’s a noticeable change that trees aren’t growing as fast. Farms aren’t yielding as many trees so in that sense yes I do believe that there’s a shortage. Temperatures are rising in the regions where trees are growing and these trees aren’t evolving quick enough to grow under those conditions. So it’s going to be apparent once the farms aren’t yielding as many crops and things like that. I do believe there’s a shortage and it’s getting harder and harder to bring them into the city. The trees we get from Oregon they come all the way from farms in Hood River.
F: And where are you guys based out of this company in particularly(Greg’s Trees)?
S: Greg, he’s been in the tree business for 30 years and he’s always been based out of Queens and still lives there and that’s where he started his first stand, right in College Point and then slowly expanded as he started growing his team and realizing that he wanted to grow his business and keep moving forward and trying to evolve his own company more and more.
F: Do you travel from somewhere else to work here? Or are you a local(New Yorker)
S: No, I’m from Portland, Oregon originally. I traveled for this seasonal gig from Portland this year last year when I was living in Salt Lake City.
F: When do you set up camp over here?
S: I came early this season to help Greg out at his house kind of organizing things and prepare other stands before everyone else got here so about the 16th of November. I was staying at his house till we started putting the stands together and getting the trailers here on location we got here(Greenpoint stand)on the 20th I believe?
F: How many stands do you guys have?
S: There’s six in total. The guys who came early helped drop off materials and buy what they need to build their stands. Then once most of all the employees come and the managers come to those stands they’ll start building. Once everyone is kind of here it’s just like a quick production, we slap together some wood and put everything together and once the trees come it looks like this.
F: It looks good, it springs up overnight basically one day it’s the end of Halloween and then all of a sudden it’s into Christmas time, it goes so quickly.
S: Some people are a little quicker than others in getting their tree we were already getting phone calls before Thanksgiving.
F: Oh, that’s a good sign! That’s really good.
F: Do you have any free time while you’re in New York or do you pretty much just hold down the fort over here?
S: We’re fortunate our stand that we have four people, but we are the busiest stand out of the six. It’s kind of necessary to have these many people here. We can kind of request some free time you know, we just got to let each other know, and communicate with our team to be fair to everyone, make sure it’s not a busy weekend.
F: Yeah, you’re not here to hang out you’re here to work.
S: We’re here to work in the end, but we do get some time to meander through the city. We just got to ask and make sure we cover each other and make it work out in the end.
F: What do you like to do in New York when you’re not working? Is there a sight you like to see?
S: Just going on walks in New York is always a fun time for me whether it’s two in the morning or four in the morning. Sightsee a little bit and just kind of observe a little bit. I’ve been wanting to find someone to let me borrow their motorcycle and ride around in the city, I met a guy last year who was actually all on board. I didn’t have a helmet at the time so that was kind of a big thing. So that’s not within legal standards of New York, kind of all states require helmets just to be safe.
F: How many years have you worked at this stand?
S: This is just my second year.
F: I feel like there are more affluent people in these neighborhoods now, you see the waterfront it’s pretty built up now comparable to a couple years ago?
S: Yeah, huge buildings and townhomes in the area and Matchless is a bar that used to be right there(points across the street). We had an awesome deal they’d give us 50% off food and beer. The owner was super kind enough to allow that and we helped them decorate inside. It was an awesome way to get a burger and a hot meal.
F: Their burger was really good! Do you sleep here?
S: I do, three of us sleep inside the trailer and then our manager Eric drives down from Quebec in his van and he sets up camp in his van, it gives us a little more space inside.
F: You guys are a tight-knit crew then? You get to know each other really quickly.
S: Oh yeah definitely, it’s the same crew as last year so we’re all familiar with each other we know what our strengths and weaknesses are already.
F: That’s always been my curiosity when you walk by some tree stands. You see the small sort of stall, you see someone in there and I think ah man he looks kind of miserable like, but you guys have a trailer.
S: Yeah we’re honestly super fortunate Greg makes it easier for us and I think making us happy and spirited for a month of living on the streets haha.
F: I guess you are kind of living on the street.
S: The biggest thing about his stands is they create that experience of Christmas you know the holiday spirit, where the other ones are just popup shop that try to get rid of some trees. Greg’s awesome.
F: What’s the toughest part of the job?
S: The last two weeks(of the season)you’re pretty exhausted at that point cause you’re working from the second you wake up til like the second you go to bed. That can be like 7 in the morning to like 3:30 in the morning the next day, so you get a couple hours of sleep throughout the whole month, the last two weeks you know it’s so close to Christmas you’re so ready to go home at that point.
F: You already do so much work before you even start selling trees.
S: Yeah so at that point you’re just mentally exhausted and physically pretty exhausted and you’re just kind of counting the days, but they seem to never end! That’s the hardest part you know?
F: You wake up and you’re at work. You’re not commuting, you’re already here.
S: You’re basically starting your day the second you wake up. Like this morning I woke up at 430 a.m. somebody knocked on the door and I had to sell a tree.
F: Really!? They wake you up out of a dead sleep?
S: Oh yeah. We’re pretty much open 24-7 so if someone does knock we’re happy to help, but we appreciate our time to get rest.
F: What’s the best part of the job?
S: The best part of the job? Ummm coming back the second year seeing familiar faces, people who live in the area and recognize us for a second year, creating those micro-relationships face to face familiarity of people.
F: It gives you an excuse to get to know other people in another neighborhood, that’s why I love photography it gets me like out the door to talk to people like you.
F: Does Greg have a warehouse for all this stuff?
S: His warehouse is his house. This is his part-time hustle that pretty much takes up a lot of his time, but he’s a special-ed teacher also, that’s his full-time gig.
F: The trees you guys bring em in on a big huge flatbed truck?
S: So we’ve unloaded three full semi trucks already and some were open flatbed trucks. I want to see them pack those trucks because that is like the game of Tetris right there to fit as many trees as they do, cause there’s like no space in there once they load it.
F: Any advice to people who’d normally purchase a tree from a big box store?
S: I know in the end it comes down to your disposable income if you can actually spend on something like a tree for the time of Christmas. They do offer trees at a lot less than we offer, you’re buying it from a large retailer versus a mom and pop local store. A local guy who operates his business based out of Queens and he’s trying to grow his business. The large retailers try and take a piece of the pie. I totally understand it’s strategic, it’s a pretty lucrative business for seasonal things like this. For my understanding they’re not working with smaller farms like Greg is from like Quebec and Oregon, so you’re helping another mom and pop farm in a different state which is pretty cool. I think working with local companies, local businesses that sort of collaboration is super awesome. You got us going and decorating other nearby businesses and creating that relationship it’s super strong versus you have a Whole Foods that just pops up. All of us who work here it excites us a little bit to be here, to see all the kids faces walking by this vintage light up Santa Claus, they’re in awe of seeing that you know?
Romp Family Stand
West Village, Manhattan, New York
F: What’s your name?
Henry: Henry Romp, this is Romp family Christmas trees.
F: Is there any truth to a Christmas tree shortage this year?
H: Yes, the Christmas tree shortage has been going on for a few years now. It has to do with poor planning and over-harvesting. It began about eight or nine years after the financial crisis in 2008 a lot of farmers didn’t plant enough or overharvested to try and compensate for the difficult financial times.
F: That affected it all the way down the road?
H: It’s years later and now we’re paying the price. An 8-foot tree can take between 6 to 12 years to grow. Sometimes they grow faster and sometimes they grow slower depending on the conditions and a lot of factors.
F: So that’s not a myth
H: No that’s not a myth
F: What’s the tallest tree you guys have here?
H: The tallest tree we have right now is 13 and a half feet. In past years we’ve had 16-foot trees which is the tallest we’ve ever had.
F: You said you’re with The Romp family Christmas trees?
H: My mother and father actually started this stand in 1988, 30 years ago right here in this spot Jane Street and 8th Avenue and I’ve been here every single year of my life. I was born in 1991 so they’d already been here a few years.
F: You were born right into it.
H: There’s actually a photo of my mother holding a tree in one hand for a customer while I’m on her hip at less than a year old.
F: Where are you guys based out of?
H: We come from Vermont from the Middlebury area.
F: Do you work with the tree farm year-round? Do you do the harvesting?
H: We don’t, we only are on the retail end. We work with a distributor who provides us the trees and he buys them from several different farms. We have been working in particular with a big farm in North Carolina for a long time for our Frasier and we get our balsam fir from Nova Scotia and douglas fir from Pennsylvania. It can vary from year to year. Our distributor sends scouts out to different farms to see what’s available from each year’s crop and he ships them to us here so they arrived on tractor trailers.
F: I was going to ask you how you got involved with selling Christmas trees but it sounds like you were born into it.
H: Actually, I can tell you a story about how my parents got involved in selling Christmas trees. My mom had a friend who sold Christmas trees in New York City and worked with the distributor that we have now. My mom and dad were looking for work one winter and called that friend and asked if they could get set up with a Christmas tree lot. At that time they had a one-year-old daughter and a German Shepherd. They were a little nervous having never been to New York City.
F: I can imagine back then it was a different town.
H: The distributor had a beautiful location for them and he assured them that they would be safe with a small child and the dog would fit right in and they came here to Jane and 8th Avenue. That first year in 1988 if you look at the weather records, was the coldest year from Thanksgiving to Christmas that we’ve had in the whole 30 years we’ve been here. Their very first year they had a one-year-old and a dog and their camping in the camper on the street corner.
F: Like the one you have right here?
H: Almost exactly the same as this one.
F: Did they have heat in there?
H: They do have heat but the first year they didn’t have the electricity hooked up. They had a propane heater and it was warm that first year. It was a challenge I hear I wasn’t here to witness it. They said it was really hard and they said at the end of it that was too much work for not enough money and it was too cold and, “we’re never going to come back and do it again.”
F: So did they come back?
H: The next year they were both looking for work again and they couldn’t turn down the opportunity, After three or four years of that they were hooked and started to love it. They became friends with people in the neighborhood and it’s become a tradition for us. I’ve done it every year of my life and I would never ever miss a season, whether the business goes up or goes down, no matter how we’re doing here, I’m going to come back every year.
H: Now this is my father Billy (he just walked up).
F: How are you doing? I’m just doing a little interview and some photos.
Billy: don’t let me interrupt you, Henry can talk more than I can.
H: I just told the story of the first few years of you and Mom coming here.
B: After the first year we said never again we suffered, 1988 was by far the coldest year we’ve had in the whole 31 years. In 1988 all the pipes were freezing, it was in the teens every day and it was down to the single digits at night for 3 weeks we suffered we came home with a few bucks.
H: You can tell I’ve heard him tell the story.
F: You nailed it.
B: Are you a journalist?
F: More or less. This is a personal project I’m an aspiring journalist I guess you could say. I’ve done photography for a long time. I was telling Henry that I had a little downtime and I was trying to stay busy. Holidays are a bit tough as a photographer.
B: I’m a would-be journalist. I’ve had a few magazine articles published. It’s a troubled industry and you’re in a city with 30,000 unemployed professional journalists, so good luck!
F: I know all of my friends are photographers. They’re all scrambling on top of each other trying to make the next job. You sell trees I take pictures what are you going to do? You get to a point where that’s just your thing man.
B: ( he’s just come back from a tree delivery on his bicycle) They treat me like royalty up there man not only do they feed me they sent me home with a $30 tip and all this chocolate.
F: Who does your other crew consist of? Do you have a couple of other guys who work for you?
H: So our main crew our core crew is me and my father and a night man who covers between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m.
B: We pay him
F: That’s noted
H: For years it was my brother-in-law, my sister’s husband who did our night watch, but now he works with my sister at their own Christmas tree stand in Brooklyn on Montague Street and Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights.
F: Oh your sister’s branched out? How do you like that branched out!
H: She’s there with her husband and their four sons, one of whom is this young man Lucas. I am babysitting him for a couple of nights to give his brother’s a break.
F: What do you like to do in New York, do you get free time over here? Are there any sites that you like to see? If you have downtime?
H: It is a pretty demanding job there is not a lot of downtime. Every minute of it I can spare is crammed full with meeting up with friends, to eat, to catch up on the past year’s events cause there are so many people that I love down here that I only see once a year for a few minutes.
F: You remain at the tree stand all day, I see that camper so you’re staying here the duration of your time?
H: We are open 24 hours. I will try to make sure that at every moment at least one Romp is here either myself or my father. If he is going on a tree delivery I make sure to stay here or vice versa.
F: Do you guys switch off on delivering trees?
H: Yes he does a lot of the longer distance deliveries because he’s a cycling enthusiast. He’s got a lot of endurance so if we have to bring a tree to Houston Street or up to 115 Street he will do it on the bicycle. Where I tend to do the more local ones my lungs aren’t quite as strong as his.
F: What is the toughest part of your job?
H: Delivering large trees up five-story walk-ups, that’s the toughest part. Often when I do a delivery I will go by myself and if I have a 10 or 11-foot tree that weighs often 150 or 200 lbs it’s very unwieldy. That would definitely be the most challenging
F: What do you enjoy most? What’s the best part of your job? It sounds like you really enjoy what you are you doing.
H: It’s going to sound really corny but my honest reply to that is the best part for me is to make people smile. One after another people who aren’t even buying a tree just walking by, when they smell the trees they’re always smiling and happy. It’s just the joy that I see and when I deliver a Christmas tree to a family and all the kids and the mom and the dad are just beaming when I take the netting off the tree and it opens and it looks so beautiful. To see the look on people’s faces there’s nothing like that in the world.
F: That’s a solid answer.
H: Thank you I mean it sounds corny but it’s 100% sincere you can probably see that on my face.
F: I see it, you’re getting a little choked up I feel like.
F: It’s okay man.
H: You really made me feel it right there for a second.
F: It’s in your blood.