A holiday business with roots

The scene was quiet in a large lot off Bristol Street, not far from where the 55 Freeway meets the 73. On that weekday afternoon of clear blue skies, there were a handful of workers, no customers and plenty of room for expansion.

The remaining inventory of Christmas trees needed only a small corner of that unpaved and barely noticed slice of Costa Mesa. In future days, the acreage likely will be built upon, and no longer will have room for selling Douglas firs.

But in the meantime, it's the holiday home base of Noonan's Christmas trees, a family business since 1944 that was started after Harry Noonan Sr. got home from World War II and there was nothing for him to do.

Nowadays, four generations of Noonans are carrying on with the tradition that Harry Sr. took part in until he died.

Among them are brothers Doug and Harry Noonan Jr., each wearing the Noonan business T-shirt and waiting for folks to pick out their favorite green specimen.

Around them, the smell of pine needles pervaded the air. The whir of passing traffic was only a stone's throw away as the two spoke with a hint of lamentation for what some say Christmas is all about these days.

"Now it's all commercialized. Christmas is commercial," Doug said, his glasses and long white beard making him vaguely reminiscent of the holiday's patron saint. "It's not like the old days, where everybody had fun, they enjoyed it and all. It's all about money. People don't have the Christmas spirit like they used to have."

Most of their seasonal selling years were in Costa Mesa off Newport Boulevard and Victoria Street. After some years off Harbor Boulevard and a few in Huntington Beach, the Noonans are renting space in a lot at 1100 Bristol. It took Doug five months to find it.

"It's harder and harder," he said, "because the rent they want is so much. You can't pay that kind of rent."

Plus, Doug said, the cost of shipping the trees, which come from Oregon and Washington, doubled this year. "The way of the Christmas tree business has been going downhill."

Harry Jr., echoed the sentiment.

"We keep doing it," he said, despite that the mega-chain types — Home Depot, Walmart, grocery stores and the like — are "slowly putting all us little guys out."

But not all is in vain.

Lately what's been helping them sell off their inventory of some 800 trees — a far cry from the thousands profitably sold in their heyday — is the fundraising aspect. Doug and Harry, both Costa Mesa High alumni, are helping their alma mater, as well as other schools and churches.

They give as much as 10% of their profits back, but, with sales ever dwindling, they would eventually like the whole effort be a fundraiser.

"All they have to do is sell the tree, collect money, and the customer comes out and picks up the tree," Doug said.

They call it a "no-brainer" fundraiser.

The Costa Mesa natives were here before, as they like to say, "Costa Mesa was Costa Mesa."

Harry still lives in town. Doug lives in the Victorville area, doing general merchandise sales during the rest of the year.

Memories of a bygone era are still fresh in their minds, even through the changes of today.

Christmas Eve used to be a busy night, Doug said, when German families bought trees and put lighted candles on them.

But the Noonans still have their loyal fans. Some are 50-year regulars who buy from them each year, just "like clockwork," Doug said.

"It's a time we can come together and get a little enjoyment," Harry added.

And what of that Christmas spirit? According to Doug, it's within the youth.

"It's for the kids," he said. "It's not for the adults or anything. Christmas is all about kids. It makes me feel good when a little kid comes up and they're playing with the tree. They're really excited about their first tree."


Twitter: @bradleyzint

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