TBO.com: Tampa Bay Online, The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times - breaking news and weather.
Sunday, Nov 23, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Rolling dice on Christmas trees

Published:

RIDGE MANOR — They are as different as the disparate regions from which they sprung, but Bruce Williams and Tony Harris are the best sort of fraternity brothers. Although they’ve never met, they share a bond sweeter than eggnog and stickier than evergreen sap.

Williams, the longtime nationwide radio talker and serial entrepreneur who bivouacs in New Port Richey on the Gulf of Mexico, personifies what natives adoringly call freakin’ Joisy: abrupt, edgy, direct and cheerfully profane. At 74, Williams remains a human low pressure system, a swirl of kinetic activity looking for a place to make landfall.

A dozen years younger, the laconic mannerisms of carpenter-turned-farmer Harris reflect his Dade City rearing. If Williams is a force of nature, Harris is the fellow who rolled out of his hammock only to reason with hurricane season. Tending the Ergle Family Christmas Tree Farm — 26 acres along the Withlacoochee River on U.S. 301 — he ambles in gait and speech, and his preternatural good nature could find the humor in an IRS audit.

(Confused about the name? Don’t be: Tony’s wife, Debbie Ergle Arnold Harris, is the daughter of the late Omar Ergle, ag teacher and Pasco-Hernando Community College provost who owned a popular Christmas tree farm in Blanton; when he died, the Harrises inherited the name.)

***

Nonetheless, both are peddlers of Christmas trees; couldn’t imagine spending the time between Black Friday and Christmas Eve doing anything different; and provide the same efficient, monosyllabic answer for why they do it: “It’s fun.”

Fun? That’s an interesting word to describe an enterprise that in real life compares almost not at all to those romance-down-at-the-tree-lot TV movies airing on the Hallmark Channel this time of year. Spend a while with an independent tree seller and you’ll soon discover — behind the carols, strings of colorful lights, hot cider and air perfumed by evergreens — hours of tedium and fretfulness punctuated by periods of intense manual labor, a combination that leaves the practitioners exhausted and grimy ... and oddly optimistic.

Running a Christmas tree operation is among your riskier business operations. Margins are thin. The season is brutishly short. Farms succumb to blight or pests imported from Asia. Wholesalers up and vanish. Truck drivers, even with GPS, get lost. Big box retailers usually are more convenient. Every year artificial trees become increasingly lifelike, emerge from the box already lighted, and don’t shed.

***

And when the gates are locked Dec. 24, whatever’s still on the lot is worthless. I mean, sure, everybody sings about the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” and we all would be unrepentant Scrooges if our annual pledge to honor Christmas all the year didn’t make as far as Boxing Day sunset, but nobody buys an Epiphany tree.

“It’s like playing the craps table at Las Vegas,” says Harris. “You better not roll the dice if you can’t afford to lose.”

“Oh, you’re gonna lose,” Williams says, “sometimes big time. ... Every year for the last 10 years, we’ve sold fewer trees. It’s down to, oh, 20 percent of what we used to sell.”

This is less a complaint than mere observation. “Things change,” he says, and you adapt or perish. Williams chooses to adapt — they’ve added high-profit grave blankets, Christmassy floral arrangements for placing in cemeteries — because he’s not willing to give up the essence of a yuletide tradition that began for him when he was 14, directing a combination Christmas tree lot and packaged mistletoe business in Franklin Park, N.J.

The enterprise mushroomed in the years after he got out of the Air Force, eventually reaching 20 outposts, wholesale and retail. Now he’s shrunk back to two, but even on a pair of lousy knees, never the same after a near-death collision with a tree in a four-seat Cessna he was piloting in 1982, he wouldn’t miss plunging in for all the myrrh in the Middle East. Even if it means flying north every Thanksgiving morning, and flying home every Christmas day.

“I love it, and I’m gonna do it until I die,” Williams says, shrouded in his red “Christmas jacket” — a 20-year-old gift from Coca-Cola from when he was the bottler’s Alaska spokesman — “or until I’m too decrepit and dementiated” — the professional communicator is not reluctant to coin words — “to go on.”

***

All that’s left is getting customers on the lot. On that score, Williams and Harris have wildly different tales.

New Jersey’s weather has been, like the song says, frightful. Snow, then rain, then freezing. “Nobody’s going out,” Williams says, “and I’m watching the weather report like it’s an X-rated movie.” For this year’s success, it’s all about now. You lose the next-to-last weekend before Christmas, you’re in something deep and stinky.

Perhaps, like real estate, selling Christmas trees is all about location. The Nature Coast hasn’t had a cold snap worthy of the name in weeks, and since opening on the weekend before Thanksgiving, Ergle’s has been hotter than a PlayStation 4 Launch Day Bundle, serving clients from down the street and as far away as Kissimmee and Venice. Says Harris in a pinch-me-I’m-dreaming voice, “I have never seen anything like this.” Last weekend, his parking lot resembled Saturday at the Pasco County Fair.

At this point, the old bones-thrower is playing with house money.

And yet, both went into the weekend saying — virtually verbatim — the same thing: “Come Monday, I’m not ordering any more trees ... unless we get real lucky.”

Because gamblers gamble. And, like the fellows said — we’ll take them at their word — it’s fun.

Subscribe to The Tampa Tribune

Comments