Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Tree Shopping Lessons

In our family growing up, father and children bore responsibility for acquiring the Christmas tree. Because my mother lead a women's group at church one night a week, the rest of us would take the large American station wagon and go out on that night to hunt for the tree. The tree purchase was a hunt because of my father's extreme thrift. He always wanted to be sure that he got the best deal, so in addition to a tree, we kids got lessons in persistence and bartering. We discovered market prices by driving from one tree lot to the next.

(Based on references at Thanksgiving, my dad apparently reads this blog; perhaps this post will surface him in the comments.)

A few forces contributed to our purchasing escapades: 1) my father's idea of an acceptable price for a Christmas tree and 2) the lessons he got at the knee of his father, a Boston fruit peddler.

From the outset, my father would have decided on an amount he hoped to spend on a Christmas tree. The price probably derived from equal parts memory of prior years and stubborn hope for a good deal. Arriving at a tree lot, he would not ask to see particular varieties of trees; he would ask the price range or to see the cheapest tree. If the lowest price on the lot exceeded the goal price, we would just walk away. "The walkaway" (as we came to call it) served two purpos
es. Saving us time shopping at a place we couldn't afford was the less important reason. We could jump in the car and go to the next place. The more important reason was that the walkaway could actually alter the price. When Dad said a civil "OK, thanks friend" and walked away, it occasionally elicited a question about what he was looking for. That question could lead to a discussion of how we were hoping for a cheaper tree and a deal-making walk among the trees.

My grandfather, who died before I was born, sold fruit in Boston, first from a wagon and then from a truck. The kids would help on the truck
and get a retail education. My dad learned to call out "App-o!" and "Watermel-o!" because the actual last syllables of apple and watermelon would melt away when shouted down the street. A son passed into manhood when he delivered a 50-pound sack of potatoes from the truck to the customer's house. My dad, who is built like me, tells the story of the hot day as a 13-year-old 90-pound weakling that his rite of passage arrived. After struggling to get the sack to the door of the classic Boston triple-decker, the customer said "third floor". Although his knees buckled, he managed to schlep the spuds to her apartment and return to the truck a man.

What was I talking about? Oh, Christmas tree shopping.

My dad also gained a keen, practical understanding of supply and demand from the days on the fruit truck. For example, early in the day, they were allowed to eat all the bananas they wanted. That way, by the end of the day, the supply would go down, driving the price up and leaving them without leftover bananas. This supply and demand knowledge came in to play on the tree lot. If we were shopping early in the season, Dad knew we lacked a certain leverage. But on a cold night as it got closer to Christmas, a large tree inventory started looking like a liability. The walkaway could tap into a latent panic that trees bought at wholesale would not be sold at all.

One Christmas represents the apotheosis of Christmas tree shopping with Dad. As I remember it, we'd driven around to several places. It was getting late. The target price was 15 dollars. That might have had something to do with why we'd visited so many lots; even in those simpler days, a fifteen-dollar tree would have been a bargain. We were the only customers in a former gas station where one lonely guy, probably college-age was selling the trees. Dad looked over several trees, talked prices, executed a partial walkaway and finally got the guy down to 18 dollars. When he pulled out his wallet and started searching his pockets, the fact that he'd anchored on 15 dollars reared its ugly head. He counted out $17 in bills and then a further 42 cents in change. Why carry more if you on a night when you were getting a tree for 15 bucks? The beleaguered salesman threw up his hands and took what Dad had, and we tossed the tree in the back of the car and headed home.

Despite these lessons, I shop for a Christmas tree differently. Time feels scarcer than money these days, and I like to look at trees in the daylight if I can. I did take Teddy with me this year, but we went to only one place, under a mile from home, chose a tree only partially on price and did not barter. We paid 42 dollars and spent about 12 minutes on the errand. The memory probably won't last for Teddy like my memories have. That's a little sad, but I hope I'm passing on my hard-won knowledge in other areas of life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know about you, but I think the reason those memories are so strong in my mind, is because the social worker in me was already wanting to help those poor cold tree salesmen and I would get embarrassed that we were not willing to pay what the guys asked. If I bought a tree each year, I would do it like you do, pay the price asked. Somehow I think we got Mom's genes for bargaining, meaning none. I always treasured the smell of a live tree though and my embarrassment over having paid so little were erased by the delight at the lovely tree we always managed to get. Your sister