• Christmas tree vendors always pop up around New York City after Thanksgiving.
• The Gilmartins are an Alaskan family who spend the holidays selling evergreens in Manhattan, and have for 21 years.
• They sleep in a camper and shower at a nearby hostel, taking 12-hour shifts to sell trees around the clock.
‘Tis the season in New York City, which means miniature evergreen forests have sprouted up every few blocks. The Christmas tree-sellers have come to town.
Despite an ongoing coniferous tree shortage, vendors have come from all around North America to make some extra cash and brave the crowds and the cold. Newsday reported the market is open to practically anyone – you don’t need a license to sell Christmas trees on the city sidewalks.
Business Insider spoke with the Gilmartins, an Alaskan family running a stand on 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue.
Back in 2015, AP reported they sell about 500 trees a season, earning around $14 an hour.
Married couple Tom and Michele have sold trees in Manhattan for 21 years, and their son Rory has accompanied them on the journey since he was a baby.
“What an adventure, right?” Tom told Business Insider. “We feel like we’re part of this place, for sure.”
Here’s what it’s like to sell Christmas trees on the streets of New York City:
The couple hails from Nikiski, Alaska. Both work in the commercial fishing industry. Tom caught the Christmas tree bug from his sister, who sold trees in Manhattan for 30 years.
Tom said there was a lull in business at the fisheries at the time. “There was nothing to do,” Tom said. The couple had a rough time during their first year, but they just kept coming back and got used to the work.
When Rory was little, Michele would carry him on her back or put him in a baby swing attached to the stand. He grew up playing in the stacks of trees — climbing up on the pile or crawling between the rows.
Now, selling trees is like an annual holiday tradition for the Gilmartins. The family flies into Philadelphia from Alaska. From there, they head down to their house in southern New Jersey where they store a camper with a giant Santa Claus perched atop it.
They then pile into their Toyota pickup and head up to New York City. A Brooklyn-based company sets up their stand and ships in new trees daily.
The family lives in the camper and runs the 24-hour stand for about 32 days, starting in late November. They sell and mind the trees for eight hours, sleep in four-hour spurts, and use the bathroom and amenities at Rite Aid and a nearby hostel. “We give the hostel a free tree and they give us showers for nothing,” Tom said.
Michele said she especially enjoys working nights, “when it’s quiet and the lights are out and it’s beautiful at night.” When the stand is less busy, she trims the trees and crafts wooden reindeer from broken branches.
The trees themselves all come from North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains and Nova Scotia. The Gilmartins charge about $20 a foot for the trees. Tom said the Christmas tree shortage caused a spike in prices.
Still, Tom said new apartments in the area are bringing in more customers than ever. “People want to get a tree up for their first year,” he said. He estimated he accrues 5% more customers every year.
This year, Michele noticed a marked shift in peoples’ holiday spirit. “People are in a better mood this year,” Michele said. “That election, it just waylaid people. They were still stunned. There was a mood about the city. It was strange. I definitely feel like there’s a rebound, and everybody’s like, ‘Well, we’ve survived a whole year.'”
Tom and Michele agreed interacting with the local community is their favorite part of the job. “I get to talk to everybody,” Tom said.
Once the holiday rush has ebbed, the Gilmartins head back down to their New Jersey cottage. They celebrate Christmas there, and return to Alaska in January.