It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas – but the view of the holidays looks quite different from a Christmas tree lot in Tribeca, New York, where seasonal workers saw and scurry to get ready for local families and celebrities in town to celebrate the holiday season.
“It's incredible, and it makes me feel like a Santa's helper for a couple hundred years already,” said Scott Lechner, who founded the company SoHo Trees in 1982.
On that particular day, at least 1,500 trees filled the lot. They'll all be sold within the week, with more coming by the trailer-full every few days. In the summer, the space is inhabited by a trendy restaurant chain’s outdoor pop-up. But from mid-November to Christmas Eve, SoHo Trees fills the lot with anything from an apartment-sized $39 “Charlie Brown” tree to a 13-foot tall Balsam Fir that goes for nearly $600.
Lechner, now 64, explained he began working with Christmas trees when he was just 22. “Back then, it wasn’t an above-ground industry,” he said. “It was a different era in New York. In Brooklyn, New York, we were raised around a lot of organized crime and a lot of non-organized crime. Even though we were very nice boys and girls, we were very influenced by the street and the thug mentality and crime is the way to go.”
His father, William, with whom Lechner shared a close relationship until his death five years ago, had always urged him to cut ties with organized crime. “I had a big talk with my dad when he was still living and he said, ‘Son, get out of any association whatsoever. It will not do you well. You’re sharp enough to make your business grow without them.’”
His chance came when he was given orders to fill a bowling alley in Mill Basin, Brooklyn with Christmas trees in his time off working at the gambling rings. “Criminality and the dark side offers a higher hourly wage, let’s put it that way. But it also has a very high price, morally, on your soul,” Lechner pondered. He used the Christmas tree industry as a way to get out of crime. “I took a lot of my friends off the street and gave them legitimate jobs," he said.
“Forty years later, here we are, with eight locations in Manhattan and the most exclusive tree purveyors that New York ever saw.”
Over the years, Lechner has gotten to know the clients who, year after year, come by for a tree. Kids who used to come to him in the '90s now come with their own children. “It’s wonderful. It makes me feel like a Santa's helper for a couple hundred years already," he said. "Like a North Pole freeze, you know, where I don't age, and I'm always like, ‘I saw your kid when he was seven, now he's 25.’"
Other times, Lechner might find out from close family members that long time clients have passed away. “Sometimes the relatives in the family come over and say, ‘Mary or Joe won't be getting a tree this year,’ and I try to do something special for them," he said. "Sometimes I'll make it a centerpiece for them or something like that just to honor them. But I always feel the loss for them. We've all been through it.”
He’s also had a number of celebrity clients over the years, including Robert De Niro and his family, Sarah Jessica Parker, and even the Christmas queen herself, Mariah Carey. But if they’re not coming with an entourage or being followed by paparazzi, Lechner’s younger employees sometimes have to whisper in his ear to remind him who everyone is.
“What’s her name? Mariah Carey—I was calling her Mary and she said, ‘What? My name is Mariah,’” Lechner recalled. “I said, ‘Mary, come over here,’ and I gave her a couple of shots [of liquor] and she was like, ‘You can call me anything.’ She couldn't believe it; I really didn't know who it was.”
Lechner said his whole team shares a laugh over wealthier customers that haggle over his prices. “I do get billionaires bargaining with me for $10, though," he said. "You think I’m kidding. It’s true, and I don’t mind telling America that. We Google them. You just sold your business for $468 million, what does it matter to you if you pay $350 or $370? It’s like dandruff. I tell them I’ve had shrimp cocktails for more.”
On any given day, Lechner can be found in his trailer, parked toward the back of the lot. During the daytime, customers know to look for him by tapping on his window. But business partners, big name clients and employees know to come around back, and knock on his door.
Sometimes, they’ll even take shots of whatever spirit Lechner has on hand through the window. “The tradition was started by me wanting to share blessings with some of my clients,” he explained. “We have a bump on the nose, as they used to call it.”
Lechner can also be found in his trailer most nights out of the week, sleeping in the small bedroom in the back. He also has three additional Winnebagos and office trailers parked around Manhattan so that he can work and rest near the smaller tree stands around the city at any given time.
About a third of SoHo Trees’ staff of 65 also rely on the company for lodging. Many of them stay in an apartment in Brooklyn in exchange for their hard work.
“I get a lot of these mountain climbers, hikers, world travelers, revelers, mountain-type men,” Lechner explained. Some of his employees end up working with him for the season via word of mouth. “Let’s say one guy is touring Europe, and a guy says to him, ‘Hey, if you want to see New York from a totally unique perspective’ - and they’re not moneyed people - ‘but you want to make enough while you’re there, right? Go ask that crazy guy in the hat in SoHo to hire you. Tell him Joey sent you.’”
Some of his employees are actors and actresses in between gigs, or construction workers who know they won't be contracted for a new job until the new year. “They got to make money, and they’re not baristas because everyone else is a barista,” he joked.
Even though every year brings a different set of employees, Lechner said everyone feels like family by the end of the holiday season. “It’s like the Marine Corps of Santa’s Army,” he joked. “There’s not a dry eye in the house on Christmas Eve. All the workers who think they’re working so hard and they think they couldn’t wait for it to be over, Christmas Eve comes and they’re sorry it’s over. They start to get acclimated and addicted to what they do.”
And, the relationships formed at the seasonal job sometimes lasts a lifetime. “I’ve had guys and girls, and guys and guys, and girls and girls getting married after meeting in SoHo Trees.”
Lechner himself doesn’t spend the holidays with his family. “I have a brother out west where I reside sometimes, in Arizona, and other than that, most of my family isn’t with us anymore, I’m so sorry to say, but their spirit is."
He's never married or started a family of his own, a result he said of a life dedicated to helping other families make memories of their own. But Lechner wouldn't have it any other way.
“You know how it is, a family is friends that you take in. They’re sometimes more valuable than even blood family, and they’re a wonderful replacement for it,” Lechner said.