A Harebrained Scheme to Sell Christmas Trees on the Streets of New York
“People were in the right place at the right time. That’s its own small Christmas miracle, I guess.”
Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with a group of friends about the holiday season more than 30 years ago when they bought a bunch of Christmas trees in New Hampshire and drove them down to New York City, thinking they could join the vibrant street-corner tree market and turn a tidy profit. Things didn’t go quite as planned, but the adventure bonded them for life. Patty and Todd, and Donna and Tom, who were dating at the time, have since married, and all the friends enjoy reminiscing about their scheme, and arguing about exactly what happened.
Patty Adams, 56, a publishing director who lives in Beverly, Massachusetts
Brad Anderson, 58, who owns a surfboard company and lives in York, Maine
Kevin Baker, 61, a writer who lives in New York City
Todd Balf, 58, a writer who lives in Beverly, Massachusetts
Tom Balf, 61, an environmental consultant who lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts
Jack Hitt, 62, a writer who lives in New Haven, Connecticut
Donna Heaney, 57, a veterinarian who lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: Let’s set the scene. It was Christmastime on the East Coast. What year was it? Whose idea was it to try to sell Christmas trees?
Todd Balf: I guess it was my idea. It was ’84, I think, and I had only been living in New York for about a year [with Kevin]. I noticed that Christmas trees were very expensive in the city. At the time, I was making about $13,000 [a year] as a fact-checker and eating generic spaghetti to get by. I was thinking that [by] selling trees in New York … we could make a windfall. I have these ideas, and then the details aren’t so well thought-out. But I communicated the idea first to Tom, who was living in Durham, at the University of New Hampshire. He was in a master’s program. It was about two weeks before Christmas.
Tom Balf: I can just hear that call. “Tommy, it’s Todd. Are there still trees up there like I remember? Because I’ve got an idea.”
Todd: Every year in New York there’s always a story in the newspaper that talks about how expensive trees are in New York. I saw one that said there was a tree on sale for $6,000. That lodged in my head.
Kevin Baker: I think that was the Rockefeller Center tree.
Just to give you a general idea of our poverty, one of our big money savers was we would go to the local Wendy’s and, with our meal, take about 500 napkins. So the apartment was full of these awful yellow-and-red napkins that we used for every possible thing.
Todd: They didn’t really fare that well against the cockroaches. Tom, how did you respond to the call?
Tom: Well, I’ve always looked to my little brother for inspiration, so I didn’t question it at all. I was probably in a totally sleep-deprived state, taking exams for my graduate classes at the time. So I thought it was a brilliant idea.
I immediately brought in my partner in crime, Donna, to see if she might be interested in taking a trip to New York City. And we reached out to another college roommate of Todd’s, Steve Chinburg, who had this special quality that made him attractive for this trip: He had a truck.
So we got in Chinburg’s truck and we headed over to the local Boy Scouts wholesaler to pick up about 25 trees at $15 a pop. I don't know what the margins are between $15 and $6,000, but it seemed like we could make a killing.
Beck: Realistically, though, what was the going rate for trees in New York City at the time?
Tom: Sixty dollars to $80 was what we were seeing. And the trees that we bought were nice. I mean, they weren’t Charlie Brown trees.
Beck: So Tom, Donna, and this other guy, Steve, went to the Boy Scouts wholesaler. You are clearly not Boy Scouts. Tell me how you made that happen.
Tom: Good catch, Julie!
Donna Heaney: When we first went in, Tom tried to buy trees and they wouldn’t sell them to him, because we had no affiliation with the Boy Scouts. So we got back in the truck and Chinburg says, “Let me try.” And he goes in and comes out, backs the truck up to the pile of trees, and loads the trees up. No question. He just went in like he owned the place and got the trees. I don’t know why they believed him and not us.
Tom: I believe he told them he was a Boy Scout leader.
Brad Anderson: One of Steve’s qualities is his easy, fluid motion through life. It’s almost like the guy was greased.
Donna: It might’ve been the lubrication of the bottle of Rumple Minze we were drinking, too.
Beck: I don’t know what that is.
Donna: It’s like peppermint schnapps. Which we consumed the entire drive to New York City.
Todd: It’s a traditional Christmas drink in New Hampshire.
Beck: So you got the trees through a little bit of subterfuge and brought them down. Where did you meet up? How did you find a spot to set up?
Todd: Therein lies the problem.
Tom: It was a Friday night and Todd was at a holiday party. We were going to meet him there, and we got there a little early. We’re entrepreneurs in training, so we thought, Why don’t we set up shop and try to sell a tree?, despite the fact that it was about 38 degrees and raining at the time. We got a parking spot nearby, and we set up shop and we sold a tree within 10 minutes.
Beck: For how much?
Tom: I think at that point we were selling them for $40.
Beck: Oh, so you were trying to undercut the market.
Tom: Well, yeah, of course.
Kevin: The tree sellers in our neighborhood were these French Canadians who would appear suddenly, usually the day after Thanksgiving, and just live on the street. They’d have a little camper that they’d take turns sleeping in. One of them would be up all night guarding the trees. Then they would disappear again on Christmas morning. You’d wake up and they’d be gone. So this was the market we were moving in on.
Patty Adams: I have no recollection of how I met up with everybody. But I was coming to New York a couple of times a month to see Todd. Donna and Tom, do you remember? Did I get a ride with you, or was I already there?
Tom: I think you were in New York already.
Patty: I think I [met up with them] pretty much at the beginning. I know we all huddled around, trying to stay warm, and we would run off and get coffee. We were trying to make it fun, singing some Christmas carols.
Donna: Brad, how did you get there? Brad appeared out of nowhere.
Brad: I don’t know how I ended up there. I was in the habit of hitchhiking around a lot in those days, so it’s possible that I hitchhiked down to some family or friends in the area. But somehow I knew and somehow I ended up there. All this coordination happened in the days before cellphones. People were in the right place at the right time. That’s its own small Christmas miracle, I guess.
Todd: What happened after the first tree was sold? Things went downhill from there for sure.
Tom: Your party ended, and we thought there must be greener pastures somewhere else. We decided that we would head up to your neighborhood. What we didn’t realize, in retrospect, was that there were [tree sellers] on every block. [Everywhere we went] there was either no space, or the guy whose store it was wanted to charge us some outrageous fee [to set up out front]. We spent a lot of time trying to set up shop, only to be really unsuccessful.
Donna: At a certain point, we decided to give up. We were trying to unload the trees on one of these tree salesmen. He made fun of our trees and said that they were crappy trees, and he wouldn’t have them in his stand. He was wearing these gloves with claws on them, so he was calling himself Santa Claws. We all thought it was funny, but I think we were all pretty drunk at that point.
Then we drove around for a while, with all of us in the truck. I remember lying on the trees in the back with Brad, just looking up at the skyscrapers, and it started to snow. It was this incredibly magical moment—flat on our backs, driving through New York City with the snow coming down.
Brad: The smell of the pine needles from the trees back there, the scent of the schnapps … It was magical.
Something just occurred to me. I remember I had a job selling Christmas trees a couple of years before that. I was bragging about my proficiency and I was brought in as a sort of expert, to help fill in the technical aspects of really hawking the trees. I’m sorry that I didn’t deliver on that. You could tell how low my stock went, because I ended up in the back of the truck driving around in the freezing cold.
Kevin: This is how people freeze to death, on the back of Christmas-tree trucks. There really wasn’t a big market for freelancers.
Brad: This was a two-night operation, wasn’t it? The surrender may have happened on night one.
Tom: Regarding the surrender, we drove back to the apartment after this magical ride. We parked the trees right next to a police station, thinking, Okay, that gives us some insurance. But we all basically said, “Screw it, we’ve got to go to bed.” This was probably around two in the morning.
Brad: For some reason we ignored the Quebecois’ good example of sitting out and guarding the trees all night.
Tom: I felt very comfortable that, even with the 8 million people in New York at the time or whatever, nobody would steal those trees.
Beck: And did they?
Tom: I woke up the next morning at a reasonable hour, and there was one tree that had been taken.
Beck: That’s not too bad.
Tom: We regarded that as a second Christmas miracle.
Brad: That might have been a miscount due to the Rumple Minze.
Tom: Our inventory-control system wasn’t great.
Beck: How did day two go?
Tom: We were all charged up again to go sell trees. We set up shop in what looked like a nice place, and then people started coming out of this building. It seemed like: This is great; lots of people.
Donna: It was Saturday morning.
Tom: Only then we realized that lots of the people had yarmulkes on. We’d set up outside a [synagogue].
Donna: So we moved down to the corner.
Tom: And we slashed our prices to get them to sell. Our whole objective at this point was to just get to a bar and drink. The moment we undercut the price, the demand became quite steady.
Brad: There you go, classic laws of economics.
Patty: When we were down to just [one tree], I remember this one woman came up to us. She was like, “I really, really want the tree, but I’ve got to go get my money. I’ll be back.” Then a couple came in and said, “We want the tree.” At that point we’d waited, like, a half hour for the person who said she was getting her money. So we sold it to the couple, and as they were walking off, the other person came back.
Todd: The characteristics of that tree were interesting. It wasn’t so much a tree as a bush, and it was the last one. We had it earmarked for our apartment because we didn’t think anybody else could possibly want it. But this person fell in unlikely love with this tree.
Patty: As the couple was walking away, we felt so bad for this woman that we actually asked the couple to give us the tree back, so we could give it to her. And they did. Because they were in, you know, the holiday spirit.
Beck: What did you do after you sold your final tree?
Tom: Then we pursued our secondary business objective, which was that we all went to a bar and bought one round of beer with the profits.
Patty: The profits bought one round of drinks, which was like $20.
Jack Hitt: We stole a lot of napkins.
Beck: It seems like this story has become one of those foundational myths of your friendship. People don’t quite remember exactly what happened—who was there, who wasn’t. Has the retelling of this story become a holiday tradition for you all?
Brad: It has. Can I just say: I’m so glad we didn’t have smartphones or endless amounts of pictures and documentation of exactly where we were and what was happening. It’s so much better just to have those pictures in our head and to be able to get together and laugh about it and disagree and have it be apocryphal, weird, and uncertain. I’m glad for the fuzziness of the memories and the lack of clarity. My memory is just the joy of it—being with all these people and having fun.
Todd: For a while, as we told the story, we kept hearing of others who might’ve been involved. We could never really define who was there and who wasn’t there. We’re pretty far removed from the actual event at this point. And so the memories are, as Brad said, a little bit unclear. But that actually adds to the luster of the story, I think.
Kevin: I’m just glad nobody got arrested or stabbed.
Todd: Said like a true New Yorker.
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