Photo by Aline Reynolds
Financial District residents Kelly Connelly, left, and her college roommates found a lush 6-footer at SoHo Trees.
The ‘Pontiff of Soho’ and his Christmas-trees cult
By Aline Reynolds
On Sunday two weekends ago, tree vendor Scott Lechner was busy juggling two or three delivery calls at a time in his cluttered, smoke-filled R.V. parked on Sixth Ave. near Spring St. at Soho Square.
It was opening week of his company, SoHo Trees, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from now through Christmas Day.
SoHo Trees began as a seasonal, neighborhood tree vendor in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
“It was 1982,” Lechner said. “We were just a few young Brooklyn boys from the streets.”
He had no idea then that the small-scale business venture would turn into a competitive citywide operation. Today, SoHo Trees operates 12 locations around Manhattan, including one at Hudson and Clarkson Sts., not far from Soho Square, as well as at 20th St. and Second Ave.
The company delivers the trees to the customers’ homes, and installs and even decorates the evergreens, with the cost ranging from $39 to $2,000.
Like most vendors nationwide, SoHo Trees has struggled in recent years as the costs of fuel, shipping, labor and rent have escalated and profits have steadily dwindled.
“We’ve been treading water,” said Lechner of their business in recent years.
But the company has managed to stay alive, running on the sales pitch of providing great-quality trees for reasonable prices.
“To offer these services is expensive. The customers have a right to be demanding,” Lechner said as he flicked the ash from his cigarette onto the floor of the R.V.
He works there on average 21 hours a day, calling the job a “cult-like dedication.” His co-workers refer to him as “Willie the Hat: Pontiff of Soho.”
Parents with children and young couples perused the Soho Square location, several stopping by with the intent to buy.
Of course, the price has to be right for each customer.
“I’m not spending $200 on a Christmas tree,” said Wall St. resident James Fegarty, who is accustomed to paying $150 maximum in London, his hometown. SoHo Trees supervisor Daniel Kirby explained that these are premium plants that last five to six weeks, rather than the typical two or three.
“This one was cut three days ago,” Lechner said, pointing to a pine in a large stack of wrapped-up trees.
Fegarty, who bargains for a living in the insurance business, managed to haggle down the price to $175 for a tree and a Fraser Fir wreath.
“I’m basically giving you the wreath for free,” Kirby said, hoping the short-term financial loss in the sale would turn Fegarty into a repeat customer next season.
The wreaths, like the trees, are mostly hand-sheared with machetes at about 15 different tree farms around the country. They are delivered to the sites by 18-wheeler trucks, as needed.
“We demand that our trees be as market-fresh as possible. And that’s no bull,” Lechner said.
A repeat customer, Soho resident Carl Finegan put down $265 for an 8-foot tree, delivery service and a bottle of preservatives.
“We’re going away for Christmas,” he said. “It’ll be good to have it when we get back.”
“It feels like a community place,” said Rebecca Hunch of Tribeca, whose annual tree shopping at the Soho location has turned into a ritual with her husband and two young children. “It’s fun that the kids remember this is where we get our tree.”
Asked whether SoHo Trees would be decorating their tree, she replied, chuckling, “Oh Gosh, no.” Unlike meals, when the family often resorts to takeout, she said, decorating the tree is one activity the family carves out time for.
“Decorating is part of the experience of it all,” said Kelly Connelly and her college roommates, who sported matching Santa Claus hats, a shopping cart and above-average bargaining skills. The students got their $115 tree reduced to $90.
SoHo Trees’ decorators account for a small chunk of the company’s profits. Lechner hires young freelance artists, like Alice Grant and Billy Gonzalez, to dress the trees with lights and ornaments for an additional cost of $50 to $100.
“We’ll talk to the customer, and they’ll give us a few key words” — on things like color theme or lighting pattern — Grant explained.
Other members of the “cult-like” team, like Kirby, work 18-hour shifts. SoHo Trees is like a brotherhood, Kirby said, and, for him, an escape from a quiet life in Wasilla, Alaska.
“I feel like part of the family — he’s kind of like an older brother figure,” Kirby said of Lechner.
Scott Gartland, nicknamed “Little Scott,” has been doing this annual work since he was 14 years old. He’s grown accustomed to not seeing his wife and children back home in Upstate New York for a whole month, including Christmas Day.
“This is what Christmas is to me,” he said. “It’s indoctrinated into me since I was a young age.”
Gartland added it hurts a little more each year not to open Christmas gifts with his family.
Yet, like Kirby, he returns every year.
“It’s a labor of love for us,” Lechner chimed in, between sales calls. “The money’s O.K. The vibe is great.”
SoHo Trees hopes to add a Christmas tree location in Union Square next season.