Tree Men of the West Side




A Russian man pulls up to the curb at 53rd Street and Eleventh Avenue in a brand new G-Class Mercedes. He’s come to make a deal. Two men approach the buyer to show him their product. After a few minutes there’s a disagreement: The Russian wants a hundred-dollar discount off a $200 purchase.

The dealers push back. They settle on $130—the lowest price allowed—and strap the tree to the luxury car, but now the Russian wants a receipt for $160 to show his boss for reimbursement.

“Driving a Mercedes Benz, trying to hustle me? C’mon,” scoffed Marco, an armed service member and a 10-year Christmas tree dealer, as he remembered the exchange.

The man got a receipt for $130.

“Some people are hilarious,” said David, a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College and the second of the two-man team. He’s been selling trees for three years.

The Christmas tree market in New York is serious business—Marco and David’s company, Soho Trees, sells thousands of trees every year for anywhere between $40 for a stout 4-footer and $1400 for a 14-footer—but the two still try to find humor in their work. It can’t hurt when they are on a single one-block stretch of pavement along Dewitt Clinton Park, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, until Christmas.

The two consider themselves a different breed. “You gotta be a tree man,” David says proudly.

Perhaps the original “tree man,” Scott Lechner, who started Soho Trees in 1982, says tree men have a particular ethos. “For us, it’s all about honor.”

They don’t live your run-of-the-mill life. “A lot of them are bohemians,” Lechner says. “Actors between gigs…carpenters, journeymen.” While he readily admits his employees may seem to be a ragtag group, he claims that it’s his secret to success. According to the 54-year-old Brooklyn-grown tree man, his operation sells more trees than anyone else in town.

As one customer approached, Marco threw out a friendly greeting: “Happy holidays, ma’am.”

“How much are the trees?” she asked.

“About $5,000,” replied Marco, straight-faced.

“About $5,000. That’s reasonable,” she said laughing.

That kind of playful banter is how most of their exchanges begin with customers. Some stay to make a big purchase and others pass.

“You gotta have a sense of humor out here. If not, you gonna be as stiff as these trees,” David says, gesturing to the evergreens lining the racks along the avenue.

“Our biggest thing: We love to do the man thing,” Marco explains. “Tree over shoulder. Deliver it on the stand. Set it up. Children smiling. Okay, I’m out.”

Deliveries are how Marco and David make most of their income. “Our main moneymaker is tips,” Marco says. Once the tree is up, they can expect a $10 tip on average, which is supplemented by $1,500 month’s pay and a bonus at Christmas. “Do we make a killing?” Marco asks. “No. We make about the average wage of anyone working for a month.”

The tree men at the west side stall simply believe they have the best product. “We cut ‘em 48 hours before, ship ‘em down here,” Marco says. While this will cost you a little more, he admits, buying a cheaper tree cut over a month ago is risky. “We like to sell the good stuff. They sell trees that will be naked by Christmas,” he says gesturing towards the distant competition.

A few avenues over, just south of 51st Street, Michelle Macchio sits under a makeshift shelter with her dog, Milo. The blue tarp stretched over two wooden posts and anchored on a faded blue minivan serves as her Christmas tree office. She lacks the support of the Soho Trees infrastructure—and their sturdy tents—but she’s happy in her situation. “It’s awesome because I don’t have a boss,” she says, explaining that it allows her to creatively decorate and manage the stand as she pleases. She’s not actually sure what company she works for; she’s helping out a friend.

“We had to build the shelter ourselves,” Michelle says. “But they bring the wreaths and trees and everything like that.”

Michelle is hoping to make enough money to return to Gainesville, Florida and fix up a sailboat in time to sail it down to Guatemala—for a do-it-yourself sailboat-building workshop. She’s also planning on returning to sell trees again next year.

In the meantime, the neighborhood has been kind to her—and to Milo. While she has benefited from free coffee, muffins and just-expired Starbucks brownie cake puffs, her companion has scored two boxes of dog treats and a box of canned dog food.

She’s even made a deal for deliveries. “We actually have a rickshaw driver that’s our delivery driver,” Michelle said.

Marco and David also make neighborhood alliances to help their business.

“We have some homeless clientele,” Marco says. He rents rolling bins, lawn chairs, chains, and anything else that might be helpful from the local homeless. Marco sees it as helping out: “Giving back, you know?”

Despite the pride and loyalty the city’s tree vendors have for their job, “tree man” is a designation with a complex connotation—neither Marco nor David wanted their last names printed because, as David said, “I don’t want to be known as just a tree man, even though I love this job.”