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Fir crazy: Selling Christmas trees is a 24-hour job in New York

Icy gusts streaked up the Brooklyn street, where at 2 a.m. the only sound was the “knock knock” of Toby Bishop pounding Christmas trees into plastic bases. A group of young revelers headed toward the tree stand, a pine-scented maze along an urban sidewalk with white Christmas lights dancing in the wind. Toby watched as they approached a towering fir.

A late-night sale in the making?

No, just another group of drunks out for the night. They circled the giant tree, joined their hands to give it a big hug, and then moved on, leaving Toby to shake his head in wonder.

Such is life on the 24-hour Christmas tree circuit in New York, whose nocturnal character and paralyzing daytime traffic — as well as the urban dilemma of having nowhere to stash piles of trees after closing — make all-night tree sellers a seasonal necessity, as ubiquitous as the oddballs who turn to them at all hours for the perfect fir.

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So who buys a tree in the middle of the night?

“Um, drunks,” said Tim Romp, 14, who each year since birth has left home in Salisbury, Vt., with his parents, Patti and Billy Romp, to live out of a small camper between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve and sell trees in New York.

Things have changed over the years. Patti and Billy split up last year, so now Tim works with his mother in Brooklyn while Billy manages his own stand at the old family spot in Manhattan. Toby, 17 — related through marriage to the Romp clan — joined Patti and Tim this year on the bustling avenue lined with small shops, a few chain stores and elegant apartment buildings.

But some things never change — sudden snowstorms, celebrity customers, bizarre requests — making life for all-night sellers predictably unpredictable. Not even the recession has had a major effect on business, said Patti, her 4-foot-10 frame buried in heavy boots, a lumberjack shirt, bulky coat and a furry hat with ear flaps. Her small radio played Christmas music as Tim, wearing a white cowboy hat, pulled an 8-foot-tall Fraser fir through the red tree-bagger, then balanced it on his shoulder and staggered down the street to deliver it.

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The Romps began selling trees in 1988, when they piled the family, including the dog, into a camper and set up shop on a corner in Greenwich Village. The couple home-schooled their children, and when they were babies, Patti would strap them to her back as she worked the tree stand, marveling at the tall, elaborately dressed women with heavy makeup and hairy legs walking past. She soon realized they were transvestites, part of the neighborhood’s landscape and a reminder that she was no longer in rural Vermont.

There were other reminders, like the man who walked up the sidewalk about 3 a.m., snatched a tree from the stand and sprinted down the street, as quick on his feet as a team of tiny reindeer. Clutching his piney plunder, he scrambled into a black SUV and roared off. Or the customer who teetered out of a tavern three nights in a row, stopped at the Christmas tree stand each night and bought a tree, too foggy-minded to remember he already had one or two at home.

“A different tree each night!” Tim said, still shaking his head at the idea.

One frigid night, a taxi unloaded an elegantly dressed woman onto the slushy, icy sidewalk as Patti sat outside. The woman wore open-toed stilettos.

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“I said to her, ‘How can you survive in shoes like that in this kind of weather?’ ” Patti recalled, to which the woman replied something akin to, “I survive because of shoes like this.” She realized later the customer was Sarah Jessica Parker, famous for her high-heeled character in the TV show “Sex and the City.” She and her husband, actor Matthew Broderick, bought a tree and carted it home.

Patti, 54, who runs a bed-and-breakfast back home, doesn’t own a television and rarely recognizes famous customers. Her entertainment comes from watching the waves of a city where at any hour you can find a delivery truck unloading goods, a couple strolling down a deserted avenue or a fitness freak running off the night’s indulgence.

“It seems surreal, to see the city empty just for an hour or two, and then to be out and see it waking up,” said Patti, who has come to know the regular joggers, dog-walkers and shopkeepers who rise before the sun. She carries treats in her pocket for passing dogs. Shopkeepers in Brooklyn, as in Manhattan, open their bathrooms to the family. Neighbors offer hot showers in their homes.

It doesn’t take a license to set up a tree stand on a city sidewalk, just permission from the adjacent building’s occupants. Fresh trees — some newly delivered from distant suppliers and still bound, others with their branches fully open — line the pavement. Patti also offers wreaths and candleholders carved from tree trunks. In the loading zone on the street, somehow immune from parking tickets, her small pickup with a camper shell offers a place to take turns sleeping, warm up or make a quiet phone call.

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The Brooklyn location is less busy than the Manhattan stand, making overnight hours pass more slowly. Toby, who was on duty when the tree-huggers arrived, was out again 24 hours later, shearing trunks and positioning trees. The cafes, pet store and grocers were closed. Toby swallowed slugs of tea to keep alert, paced to keep warm, and admitted that he would rather be in Vermont doing what he loves — working on cars.

As for trees, “I have a plastic one,” he said.

It’s rare to hear a tree seller admit to what in the business is the greatest sin — owning a fake tree.

“Humbug!” said Scott Lechner of Soho Trees, another 24-hour seller. Real trees, he said, reflect a family’s changing moods. Some years people buy big, some years they buy small. “But those fake trees never change. It’s the same piece of junk year after year,” Lechner said.

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“It’s like putting a plastic turkey on the table for Thanksgiving!” George Smith barked at a woman who walked past his Brooklyn stand and said she preferred plastic to pine. Like all 24-hour sellers, Smith insists he offers something special: a money-back guarantee that his trees won’t die before Christmas.

Lechner offers the most elaborate service: decorators who will go to customers’ homes at any hour and hang lights and ornaments to their specifications. “We’ll even send carolers,” said Lechner, whose memorable clients include one who ordered 50 trees to hang upside down from his ceiling.

Billy Romp also delivers 24/7, using a red Porsche driven by the Romps’ eldest son, 20-year-old Henry, who wears a Santa hat and several earrings.

“We’ve sold trees at every hour on the clock,” said Billy, 57, sitting inside his camper van. A pineapple and bananas sat on the tiny stovetop. A white curtain hid the bed, and a tiny table surrounded by bench seats served as the dining area. Outside, the wind howled. “It’s a young man’s game,” he said, adding that few sellers return once they experience the harsh working conditions.

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Across the East River, Patti Romp’s camper was suffering from a dead battery, a broken stove and dead refrigerator, not that anyone needed refrigeration when the temperature read 28 degrees. She was thinking of breaking down and buying an electric blanket — to keep her dog warm.

Despite the sleep deprivation, the cold and the fear that each season could be their worst, the diehard sellers come back, lured as much by the camaraderie nurtured through the decades as the money. On a busy night in Manhattan, someone making deliveries can earn $600 in tips alone. Trees taller than 8 feet easily fetch more than $100, and those reaching 12 feet can go for $300, though Lechner’s specially decorated ones fetch far more.

After the first brutal year, Billy Romp didn’t think he’d be back, but now, “I’d do it even without the money,” he said.

Patti Romp also plans to return next year to her Brooklyn spot, but she’ll need a new night man. Toby Bishop quit about two weeks into the season and headed back to Vermont, and his plastic tree.

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tina.susman@latimes.com


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