Southland Marks Christmas Countdown : Bargaining Is Both Brisk and Bilingual as Tree Buyers Invade Trackside Market

Times Staff Writer

The hustle and bustle of Christmas was getting down to the hustle Saturday as Christmas tree salesmen in railroad yards near downtown Los Angeles tried to hawk the last of their piney wares.

"Are you looking for a tree? Are you looking for a bargain? We've got the tree of your Christmas dreams right here in Wonderland," bellowed a seller in both English and Spanish over his public-address system, adding to the din of brassy Christmas carols piped into the sales lots.

Set against a backdrop of rusty boxcars and battered warehouses, a visit to the Christmas tree lots at 8th and Alameda streets has become a holiday tradition for families who want to pluck their ideal tree straight from the train.

"You can get a nice tree for a good price and the prices are flexible," Nannette Adie-Ikor of South Los Angeles said. "This is our fourth year coming here and you can always talk the price down at least $10, if not a lot more."

Veteran salesman Clarence Reisner, who has been hawking trees at the downtown location since 1935, said the railroad yards originally were not meant for sales to individuals.

"Every tree that came into Los Angeles came through here because they didn't have trucks to do the hauling back then like they do now," said Reisner, who will turn 81 next month. "We only did wholesale, but then folks would see all the trees and ask to buy just one and we wouldn't turn them down."

Fifty years later, the railroad yard has become an annual carnival of competing sales pitches, evergreen odors and delighted children scurrying between the Christmas trees as they beg their parents for a hot dog or churro from the roadside food stands.

With Christmas Eve only three nights away, salesmen working the lots Saturday said that after today, trees snubbed by Christmas shoppers would be given to charitable organizations and passed along to the poor.

"It's over," salesman Richard Wright said. "Now they're paying $10 to $14 for a tree you would have paid $35 or $40 for a week ago. The name of the game here is fresh, right out of the boxcar; and there aren't many of those left."

On Saturday, the few fresh trees that remained wrapped in wire on the boxcars were brought out to be fluffed by burly lot workers smoking cigarettes. The men heaved the trees high into the air and slammed their stumps onto the ground, bouncing the branches back into shape after the trees' cramped journeys from Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

"There's lots of room for presents under this little beauty," a cowboy salesman drawled to his audience at one boxcar, before he launched into his auctioneer's rapid-fire drone to bid the tree away. "There's 20 from the li'l lady in the yellow sweater, and do I see 21 from the man in the L.A. hat; how 'bout it li'l lady, is it 22; it's 22, and L.A. is it 23, is it 23, is it 23, yes or no L.A.; and it's $22 to the yellow sweater. Ya got yourself a beauty, ma'am."

To some tree shoppers, the scene fell short of the holiday spirit they expected.

"It reminds me of a used-car lot sales pitch," Toni Schioldager of Beverly Hills said. "I don't want to buy a tree from a late-night salesman."

First Christmas in L.A.

Schioldager and her husband, Steve, had come to the lots with their two young daughters to find the family's tree on their first Christmas in Los Angeles.

"There isn't a lot of atmosphere here," Steve Schioldager said. "It could be a lot more Christmasey."

Some found the 80-degree weather unseasonal. "This is the first time I've gotten sunburned looking for a tree," Jim Byars of Silver Lake said.

But most of the people hauling away their purchases seemed delighted.

"It's part of the tradition," Alex Reeves of South-Central Los Angeles said as he fastened his tree to the roof of his car. "You hear the music and everything. . . . I love the smell. It's just great."

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