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Newest Pandemic Shortage and Price Spike: Christmas Trees

Diana Karvelis spent 15 minutes choosing just the right Christmas tree — a five-footer that cost $65 — at a stand in the East Village on a freezing weekday night.

“In the past it’s been a ‘nice to have,’ now it’s a ‘need to have,’” she said.

Ms. Karvelis, who was laid off from her job and moved to a new apartment in the midst of the pandemic, said that in a year when she could not see her family in person, the experience reminded her of cutting down a Christmas tree while growing up outside Detroit.

She is one of many New Yorkers searching for comfort in conifers, clamoring for Christmas trees as balms of normalcy in the middle of a pandemic that has turned everyone’s life upside down.

But the Christmas tree business, like seemingly everything else, has been disrupted by the virus. There are fewer sidewalk stands in the city, with some vendors citing public health concerns as the reason they are staying away, while others have noted an unmistakable spike in demand from pent-up New Yorkers desperate for holiday cheer.

And eager buyers are being asked to dig a little deeper as some vendors raise their prices.

Across the United States, Canada and much of Europe, consumers have been snapping up trees, leading in many cases to record sales. Some people are first-time buyers, while others are buying earlier than usual, making it challenging to keep fresh trees in stock.

Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, said growers sold 26.2 million trees in the United States last year and that “all indications are that it will be a higher number than that” in 2020.

In New York, there is clearly a correlation between pandemic fatigue and people heading for the nearest tree seller — in some cases right after cleaning the Thanksgiving dinner dishes.

“I think people are just starving for human contact,” said Erika Lee Sengstack, an owner of Tree Riders NYC, the East Village stand where Ms. Karvelis bought her tree. “And to be able to make that connection on the street, over a tree, is truly heartwarming.”

Some vendors worry that they might not have enough trees this season.

“The racks should speak for themselves,” said Jody LaBonville, gesturing to the scarcity of trees left at the stand in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, that he runs with his wife, Elen.

There did appear to be plenty of trees at the NYC Trees stand in Hell’s Kitchen, which spilled onto the sidewalk from a narrow lot off 10th Avenue. But many of them were slated for delivery, and more popular sizes, like four- and five-foot trees that are suitable for smaller apartments, were rarely available.

Kendall Larkin and Scott Elchison snagged a five-footer for their nearby apartment before the stand ran out.

“I am a fanatic of Christmas,” Ms. Larkin said. “I think the saddest part is that a lot of the traditional stuff we can’t do, so this is a must.”

Harold DeLucia, who runs NYC Trees and Tyler’s Trees, said sales were already up nearly 200 percent at his stand from the same period last year.

Jane Waterman, who has run Uptown Christmas Trees for 46 years, said she had sold 2,000 more trees than this time last year from her 19 locations around the city.

“Trees have been flying off the lots,’’ she said.

Reneé Campbell, part of a family that owns a tree farm in North Carolina, said “our phone has rang off the hook” with calls from vendors desperate for more trees, including several in the Northeast.

Still, New Yorkers who have yet to get a tree need not panic. They can still find well-stocked stands in many neighborhoods — but they might need to size up or size down and pay more than in years past.

Darnell Thornton and his daughter Celine, who purchased a seven-foot-tall tree from Mr. LaBonville, said his extended family usually gathers at their townhouse in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, for the holidays.

But even though that was out of the question this year, Mr. Thornton said he still wanted to make his home festive. He paid $200 for the tree, the same amount he paid for a larger tree last year, but said he did not mind.

“We want to come to him and support his business,” Mr. Thornton said.

Mr. LaBonville, who helped Mr. Thornton tie the tree to his Jeep Grand Cherokee, said that on average he had to charge about 20 percent more this year, but “most people, they understand it.”

Many factors have contributed to the short supply. Many growers planted fewer trees after demand cratered during the 2008 recession, which affects the market now because trees can take a decade to mature.

This year some vendors in New York ordered fewer trees and chose to operate fewer stands than normal since the pandemic was so dire when they started making plans in the spring.

Kevin Hammer, who has been referred to as the city’s Christmas tree kingpin, said he decided to open only half the stands he normally does, though he would not specify a precise number.

The pandemic created other problems for Mr. Hammer. Many of his sellers usually travel to the city from the Canadian province of Quebec, but because the border is closed to all nonessential travel they could not make the trip. He was left with trees and locations to sell them, but nobody to make the sales.

“Five weeks before D-Day is when everybody started canceling, and I lived on the phone for five weeks, calling everyone I know,” Mr. Hammer said.

Some vendors who have become seasonal fixtures in their neighborhoods have not returned this year because of the virus.

One of them, who said that he had worked at a stand run in Greenwich Village for the past 19 years, said the border restrictions kept him away from the city.

“My customers keep texting me, ‘Where are you?’ ‘What’s going on?’” said the vendor, who asked to be referred to by his first name, Sebastien, to avoid possible greater government scrutiny at the border in the future.

Mr. LaBonville, who has traveled from Jackman, Me., near the Canadian border, with his wife to sell trees for six years, was one of the people Mr. Hammer called as he scrambled to reorganize his stands.

Mr. LaBonville said that normally they set up a stand in the West Village, but this year Mr. Hammer sent them to Brooklyn to take over a location that had been run by someone from Quebec for a decade.

During tree-selling season Mr. LaBonville and his wife live out of a recreational vehicle that they park in the lot of a medical clinic behind the stand. When they are not selling trees, they plant them: They work as foresters the rest of the year.

Mr. LaBonville said the clinic allows them to park there for the duration of their stay and to use its bathroom in exchange for trees for the staff.

Such arrangements are common in the city. A 1938 law allows people to sell trees on city streets without a permit, as long as they have permission from nearby property owners and do not block pedestrians.

Many vendors develop close ties to neighborhoods they visit year after year, finding companionship during their long cold days on the street.

“I’ve been preached at, I’ve been lectured, I’ve been edified,” Mr. LaBonville said. “I feel like Lucy with the psychiatrist’s stand.”

In the dark winter of 2020, more customers than usual may seek his ministrations.

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