Posted on Leave a comment

Christmas In July??

My favorite place to have a quiet morning coffee… all year. It is a great time and place for reflecting on the past year.

Where does the time go?  I can’t believe Christmas is right around the corner!  OK, we all know Christmas is still five months away.  Given what we are all living through at the moment, five months will fly by and before we know, it will be time for Santa Claus to come bursting into our lives once again.  For the past three years, I have owned and operated retail Christmas tree lots in Chicago. Now, I realize this may be too much for some to think about.  I offer this essay series as a way to view Christmas and its potential to improve this special time of year.  My hope is Christmas 2020 will be viewed with a more thoughtful eye trained towards consumption and what really matters.  People keep asking me how I think “it” will be as we re-open.  I answer them with a simple question… how are YOU going to be?  Before I started selling Christmas trees but while I was a dad, my family can report I was a pretty big Scrooge.  The over the top consumerism of Christmas was and still is a big bummer for me.  I did not want to be remembered this way by my family so I decided to change things and open a Christmas tree lot.  This changed my perspective and attitude, and that changed everything!  Nothing changes until something changes.

I had never heard of Christmas In July until just this year. Had I heard of it sooner, it probably would have pissed me off. However, under the current circumstances, I see how this idea could be a better great foundation builder as we begin to poke our heads out from sheltering in place with the ones we love most. As I shared above, I used to really struggle through the Christmas season but I want to save those stories for later posats. What I want to write about for the next month is why I am so excited for Christmas in July this year.

I am a hustler and have always had a difficult time working for others. Being one of these types, I have learned to rely on my creativity and work ethic to get where I am today. I still have a long way to go but as I see it, things are just getting rolling and I am excited for the road that lies in front of me. In addition to the Christmas tree lots, my hustle includes, snow removal, single family home maintenance (landscaping, clean ups, power washing, etc.), raising backyard chickens, and trading commodities. My Christmas tree lots are open from the day after Thanksgiving until I sell out of trees. I give a good number of trees away every year as sales slow closer to Christmas, so I actually never really “sell out.” PUN!!! What got me thinking about tree season a bit earlier this year, like most small businesses, is that I have no idea what “things will look like” when we are reopened from a sales perspective. As a result of this bump in the road, I made the decision to not pay off my inventory purchase when the season was over as would normally be the case. Every year my bank sends me checks that I can use however I wish with no interest until September of the following year. I am required to make a minimum payment every month, but this system has worked for me in the past. Given the uncertainty around the duration of the pandemic, I needed to keep the cash I had as a reserve for necessities should my family need the money to get through the recession in which we now find ourselves. My wife owns and runs her own executive recruiting firm and with the onset of the pandemic, we made the decision to pay our people, provide health insurance, and keep them on until we ran out of cash. It is a ballsy move but one that felt right for wifey and me. We are both confident in our ability to recover financially… hell, it could be argued that we never really recovered from the financial pain of divorcing our first spouses 12 years ago. So it is just more of the same… oh well. This year being different, I have begun thinking about ways to manage things in two ways: 1) pay off the money I owe from last year’s inventory and 2) understand what demand will be like this year so I can make the most accurate tree order possible. Next month on July 1st, will be bringing to market the most in demand item of Christmas 2020. I am not going to share with you what it is until the release date, but want to wet your whistle over the balance of June with my stories about Christmas time, Christmas trees, and what it all means to me. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the stories.

This is the first story of many and I suppose I should start at the beginning. Not the absolute beginning, but rather the beginning of the Christmas Tree Lot story. When I was a Sophomore in high school, my friend was killed in a horrible car accident. Thankfully, I was not out that night with the boys. I don’t recall what I was doing, but I vividly remember my girlfriend calling the next morning confirming I was okay. There was no reason to think I would not have been with my friend who was killed and the rest of the guys that fateful night. I still think about my friend often and wonder what he would have become. At the time it took a long while for me to get back to what could be considered a normal and healthy routine. I did not sleep a lot during those days and nights, and it was even more difficult than before to maintain focus in the classroom. In addition to these struggles, I decided I was not going to be on the swim team that year. I started swimming competitively at the age of five and while I was no super star, I had my fair share of blue ribbons hanging from the cork board in my room. When I entered high school, my mom insisted I either be in an organized sport or have a job. Mom raised me with the motto “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” This was true for me and my mom did a great job of ensuring I always had a commitment to something bigger than myself on which to focus. Thanks mom! I was a horrible student in high school. At the end of every semester I would scramble for the C- just to keep my parents off my back. When mom learned I had not been going to swim practice, she summoned me from my room and shared in no uncertain terms if I was not going to be on the swim team, I needed to get a job, and fast! Being as scrappy a kid as I am an adult, it did not take me long to find that job mom knew I needed.

I made a quick dash to the Sorensen Christmas tree lot which opened every year in the Kramer’s grocery store parking lot. Bill Sorensen had been running a Christmas tree lot at this location for 40 years. Bill has since passed yet his partner Tom McIntyer comes from Michigan every year and sets up the lot, which is now located in a church parking lot on the other side of town – yes…. he is still selling trees! Home Depot Christmas trees have nothing on Tommy. I admire his grit immensely. Bill hired me on the spot and I started the very next day. Everyday after school I would go home get a snack and put on warm clothes. Being November, my mom or girlfriend would give me a ride rather than ride my bike. I preferred the ride from my girlfriend, as that meant there would be necking in the parking lot before I started my shift…. HELLO!

I learned a lot (PUN!) from Bill Sorensen.  Not just about trees and running a tree lot, but also we all have to do things in life and at work we would rather skip.  Emptying the “shitter” in the trailer the guys stayed in during tree season is a perfect example.  The trailer was old, and what Bill called the “shitter” was a 5-gallon pail outside and underneath the commode with sawdust and powder which I would scoop in the bucket when I was finished emptying its contents into the porta potty just a few feet away.  Clearly, Bill and the boys thought having me empty the shitter was less of an inconvenience than them having to use the porta potty in sub-freezing temperatures.  Needless to say, this taught me a lot.  Years later when I did not have enough money to pay someone to empty the grease trap in my failing restaurant, I had no problem stepping in and doing it myself.  Day in and day out we are all asked as contributing members of society to accomplish tasks that are necessary yet undesirable.  When I look back and recall these memories, I am grateful for the lessons I learned from Bill during those three seasons.  I still go back and visit Tom around Christmas.  The really sad thing is that they now have to go outside to use the porta potty, as there is no one to empty the shitter when it gets full.  In addition to emptying the shitter, I learned a lot about Christmas trees and running a Christmas tree lot business. 

Simply from doing my job when I was a teenager, I now bring a unique service-oriented approach to selling a product that can be bought at Home Depot for significantly less than half of what I am charging customers.  I am indeed blessed to see families during what is quite possibly the best hour of the year for them as a family.  I do indeed hold it as an honor to be part of such special moments.  When families come back year after year, this means even more.  I am so grateful for this experience.  The Christmas tree is the secular foundation of the Christmas ritual.  It is the one thing that we can be gaudy with in a manner not considered at other holidays.  I am an early riser by nature, and my favorite time to get up early is between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Coming down the stairs and seeing our beautiful family tree is a momentary bliss I look forward to very much.  When I wake up it is literally the first excitement to enter my head.  Having coffee next to this slowly fading arbor provides 30 of the best minutes I will have all day.  While waking up early is a pleasure everyday, it means a little more during the Christmas season. 

At almost 1,800 words, I think I have shared enough to kick start this endeavor.  Like everything worthwhile in life, this will take a lot of hard work and there will be bumps in the road that have the potential to take me off course.  I will persevere regardless and I am glad you have decided to come along for the ride.            

Leave a Reply