According to a recent online article, mid- to late-November is the optimum time to purchase a Christmas tree, given the vast majority of trees for sale are harvested during the first week of November and the quicker you get yours in a watering stand after it’s been felled, the longer it will retain its needles.
That may explain why Pete Scott, the Pete behind Pete’s Trees, a quaint, pop-up Christmas-tree lot situated at the northeast corner of Westminster Avenue and Chestnut Street, immediately adjacent to Chestnut Grocery Fine Foods, was already fielding messages weeks ago from people anxious to know when his throwback of a biz would be up and running.
"Typically we aim for the first of December as our official, opening day but this year, for whatever reason, I started getting calls and texts in mid-November asking where we were," says Scott, pausing to place a few logs in a cast-iron fire pit, in the event customers poking through his selection of predominately spruce and fir trees want to take a break to warm their extremities.
"In my head I was thinking, jeez, there’s hardly any snow on the ground yet, but that didn’t seem to matter. They were like, ‘I want my Christmas tree! Now!’"
Scott, 37, grew up on Walnut Street, "about seven stones’ throw" from where his side venture is operating for the third-consecutive December; he runs his own company, Walnut Construction, the other 11 months of the year. He has fond memories of shopping for trees as a kid, a family excursion that typically took place as close to the "big day" as possible, he says.
"My dad was a bit of a cheapskate, so he liked to wait until Dec. 23 to get our tree," Scott says, dressed in his usual work attire, boots, ski-pants and a red-and-black checkered lumberjack coat. "While he was busy haggling with the old-time, tree-hawker guy, we’d be in the back corner (of the lot) where all the junky trees were, trying to find that classic Charlie Brown tree to take home."
In the fall of 2006, Scott landed a job on a tree farm in southern Quebec. Living out of a "tiny little shack" in the Laurentian Mountains, he and a few other fellows spent their days chopping down trees and baling them together in piles, in preparation to be shipped to points across North America.
At the end of November, one of the guys he’d been working alongside announced he was heading to New York City to sell trees at a sidewalk stand in Harlem. Because he was going to need somebody to tend the trees overnight once he was done for the day, he asked Scott if he wanted to tag along.
"So there I was, at 125th and Amsterdam, guarding this guy’s trees from eight at night till eight in the morning, for a month straight," Scott says. "There were some rough folks around, but they never really bothered us. For the most part people were kind, generous and hilarious. I think the spirit of Christmas must’ve protected us."
Scott spent the next four years bouncing from city to city, living as far east as Montreal and as far north as Yellowknife. In 2010, he was afforded the opportunity to return to the Big Apple, this time as a tree-stand operator for a married couple from Vermont who ran 25 Christmas tree lots throughout New York City.
"I did that five Decembers in a row, in different locations. And because almost nobody in New York has a car — most of the people I sold trees to would simply throw theirs over their shoulder and walk home — that was the inspiration for this," he says, motioning to his assortment with a wave of his right arm. "In Winnipeg, almost every Christmas tree vendor thinks you have to set up in a parking lot so people can drive right up to get their tree. Having had the experience in New York of only having a small space to work with, I was pretty sure this spot would be more than ideal."
Last year, Sharon, who didn’t provide her last name, picked up her family Christmas tree from a big-box store, at the tail end of a grocery run. The married mother of three regretted that decision soon thereafter, she says, when she spotted Pete’s Trees out of the corner of her eye, while driving past it on the way to her Ruby Street abode.
"I remember thinking how much more memorable it would have been to gather up our kids and walk over here as a family to get our tree, instead of grabbing the first one I saw on my way out of Superstore," she says. "That night I told my husband next year we’d get our tree at Pete’s, and that’s precisely what we’re doing today."
Even though Pete’s Trees has only been around for three holiday seasons, the lot, which Scott’s pal Mark Neufeld was instrumental in helping get off the ground in the first two years, has quickly become as much a community hub as it is a retail entity. The majority of customers make the trek over on foot, Scott says, often accompanied by a family pooch pulling a wooden sled that will come in handy when it’s time to head home with their Tanenbaum. Some make an afternoon or evening of it, says, bringing along a bag of marshmallows to roast over the fire while they watch their kids scamper about the roughly 600-square-foot space, which features a play area and teeter-totter.
Scott, whose daily hours are posted on his Instagram page also sells stands, homemade beeswax candles and wreaths, the latter hand-woven from branches of willow and dogwood trees growing near Marchand, approximately 80 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg. As for the trees themselves, a fair number are brought in from Eastern Canada, while others have (had?) roots in Manitoba’s Sandilands Provincial Forest area.
"Here in Wolseley, buying local is really important to lots of people, so as much as possible, we try to bring in cultivated, local trees," Scott explains, speaking loudly enough to be heard over music wafting from a set of elevated speakers (sorry, he doesn’t "do" Christmas tunes).
"We’re also cognizant of the fact there are a lot of tall, main-floor ceilings in this part of town, so if you’re looking for a 12-foot wild spruce, we can definitely help you out."
Another thing; while it definitely helps to have a personality that’s both merry and bright when you’re a Christmas-tree salesperson, it also pays to be ambidextrous. Lots of times, couples will ask Scott to pose with a pair of trees, one in each of his hands, while they hem and haw, trying to settle on which of the two they like best.
"I have that old, hold-and-twirl move down to a science," he says with a laugh. "But I don’t mind if it takes them a while to decide because honestly, people are incredibly appreciative that we’re here. In the last three years we’ve received the nicest, nicest compliments and that, more than anything else, is probably why we intend to keep doing this. That and the threats that if we aren’t back next year, they’re going to hunt us down and make us sell them a tree, whether we want to or not."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.