This eye-opening, entertaining story by Owen Long exposes the wild and ruthless business of selling Christmas trees in New York City. The industry is run by a few eccentric businessmen, called “tree men,” who spend most of the year preparing for the holiday season. There’s George Nash, an old hippie who sells trees to much of Harlem; Kevin Hammer, known as the “Keyser Söze of Christmas” and the man responsible for shaping NYC’s industry into what it is today; and Greg Walsh, who is Long’s boss (and looks exactly like Santa Claus). It’s a fascinating (and at times, very funny) read.

I’ve met several people who’ve sold Christmas trees for Hammer. Almost all of them asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. They said that to work for Hammer, there is no interview and there is no application. The only way to enter his network is to be referred by an insider. You and a partner — Hammer’s sellers always work in pairs — call a number around October, and a voice instructs you both to show up at a certain location (typically a sidewalk outside a bodega) around Thanksgiving. When you arrive, the two of you wait, possibly hours, potentially days, for another phone call from a different number. A new voice instructs you to construct a small shack out of pallets, plywood, even garbage, then continue waiting for the arrival of hundreds of Christmas trees, which will soon appear overnight along with clippers, chain saws, and plastic netting. You are instructed to sell each tree at the highest possible price.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.