Feature: Business Profile
Miracle on 110th Street
The Making of a New York Christmas
On a frigid day in early December 1974, George Nash, a carpenter from Wolcott, Vermont, was driving a flat-bed truck of balsam-fir Christmas trees south along Vermont’s Interstate 89, bound for Boston. At the same time, Kevin Hammer, a 19-year-old Brooklynite in a cargo van was heading in the opposite direction. Hammer, having spotted Nash’s truck in the on-coming lane, swung his van around and followed Nash to a gas station outside White River Junction. “This crazy guy pulls up behind me in a van,” Nash recalls of their first meeting, “this little guy with a thick Brooklyn accent, and asks me where I got those Christmas trees.
“The next thing I know, I am jammed into a phone booth. It is freezing cold. There is ice forming on the phone booth windows.(Hammer) is feeding me quarters, and I’m making phone calls back up north to the grower I got the trees from.”
Hammer had an idea. He wanted to sell Christmas trees in New York, and he had set out from Brooklyn that morning with the hope of finding a supplier. Little did Nash know then, but that “crazy guy with a Brooklyn accent,” was not only about to revolutionize a New York City industry, he would also introduce Nash and his family to a passion that would last them a lifetime. Hammer’s idea was simple: He wanted to sell trees. What was revolutionary about it was how he proposed to do it. Due to a then little-known loophole in New York City law, vendors are legally allowed to sell Christmas trees on city sidewalks, without a permit, throughout the month of December. Hammer had discover this loophole and was looking to capitalize. “He had this brilliant inspiration,” Nash says. “Up until then, all the trees in the city were sold at little florist shops or in front of delis. They were all bought at the terminal markets out in Brooklyn or the Bronx, and were shipped in by railroad cars. They were really poor quality and very expensive.” What Hammer wanted to do, he told Nash, was truck high-quality Vermont trees direct to the city and then sell them from stands along the street.
Nash and Hammer shook hands that day. Promises were made. Hammer agreed to call. And Nash drove off convinced that he would never hear from Hammer again. But, a couple days later, Hammer called and ordered from Nash his first 250 trees to be delivered the following evening. Nash delivered the trees, and a few days later Hammer call again. And then again a few days after that, setting in motion what would quickly become a mainstay of Christmas in the New York— the literal forests of trees, garland and Christmas lights that now pop up from the city’s sidewalks the first week of December.
Ups and Downs
Nash, now 59, is a small, thick-shouldered man with a dark, simmering gaze and palms as coarse as lumber. He sits at the kitchen table of his Garfield, Vermont home. It is a home he and his wife built themselves. Beefy, hand-hewn beams form the home’s structure. A knotted tree branch, polished smooth, stands in as a handrail for the stairs. The warmth and smell of a wood fire fills the air. Nash is soft spoken and chooses each word as if picking berries from a branch. He smiles wryly. He has spent the past 33 years selling Christmas trees in New York, and his tales of the business are an equal mix of woe and wonderment, all of which he now views through that gloss of passion that has kept him at it all these years. “It gets into your blood,” he says, “and once it does, it’s terminal.”
That first year, Nash and Hammer ferried small truck loads of trees into the city, until by the second season they had outgrown Nash’s flatbed and began hiring private truckers with increasingly larger trucks. By the fourth year, they had moved up to tractor trailers and were having to seek out additional and much larger suppliers in New York and Canada. Nash designed, built and maintained the small 4ft x 6ft booths they set up at each stand. By the seventh year, they had more than 40 stands scattered throughout Manhattan. Nash arranged for, bought and organized the trucking of the trees. He managed up to 20 stands and maintained his own stand on the corner of 110 Street and Broadway—one of the most successful stands in the city. It was this stand, along with three others, that Nash, at the encouragement of his wife and business partner Dr. Jane Waterman, bought from Hammer. The two men had worked together for ten years, but increasing tensions and a final dispute over “employee relations” spurred Nash to go out on his own.
Waterman and Nash then formed Gopher Broke Enterprises, and those first few years were some of the best and worst for their fledgling business. The couple decided to expand their market, and along with their four retail stands, they looked into selling trees wholesale. They rented a spot in the massive parking lot of the Bay Plaza in the Bronx and the height of their business sold more than 29,000 trees. What the Vermont couple had failed to realize, however, was that by deciding to sell trees wholesale, they had unwittingly veered into one of the most nefarious sides of New York City. Over the next few years, Nash experienced some of the worst that the city had to offer. He and his workers were mugged several times. Nash faced repeated attempts at extortion; was the victim of a massive, well-organized armed robbery that cost him an entire year’s profit; and at its worst, was all-too-close to the Soprano’s style murder of a fellow marketer.
Paranoia set in. Nash started carrying a weapon. And though they held on for another two years after the murder, the couple soon realized that that was not the life they wanted to live. “Needless to say,” says Waterman, “we got out of the (wholesale) business,” deciding instead to shrink Gopher Broke back down to its four original stands and something that Nash could easily manage on his own. Slowly, the couple then built Gopher Broke up to 11 and then 13 stands, making them the second largest retail tree seller in the city. Hammer is still the first, and a lot, notes Waterman, has changed in the city since those early days. Neither the city nor the business is anything like it used to be.
Benjamin Hatfield, Nash and Waterman’s youngest son, is one of the 30 sellers who travel with Gopher Broke each year into the city. Small groups of sellers, typically assigned two to a stand, cram into various city apartments, most, if not all, of which are unfurnished. The sellers crash on the floors in sleeping bags and swap out long shifts at the stands. One cover days. The other keeps watch at night. Nash supplies them with bikes to get around and cell phones to keep in touch. It is hard month of work, but it is a month that Hatfield greatly enjoys. He likes New York and finds many New Yorkers to be as friendly as, if not friendlier than, most Vermonters. People stop and talk to him at the deli counter and in the street while he’s working the stand. “I have to say, there is a high level of friendship in New York,” he says. “I actually miss it when I come back up here.”
Waterman attributes this both the season and to the work they do. “It is a magical time of the year,” she says. “Everybody is in good spirits. You can’t get better human contact than hanging out in Harlem on a nice day. If the whole world could be like New York during Christmas, it would be fabulous. Everybody in that neighborhood (110th Street) gets along with each other. They all just get along, even with all their differences.”
Gopher Broke Enterprises: By the numbers
20% of this year’s trees come from Vermont
10,000-12,000 trees trucked down per year
13 tree-selling locations in the city
$10-$250 cost for trees
8-10 years average age of 6- or 7-foot tree