Big Apple Christmas suits Nikiski couple

Posted: Friday, December 01, 2000

For the past five years Thomas and Michele Gilmartin have left their cozy Nikiski home to sell Christmas trees on the bustling streets of New York City.

For most of the year, the couple makes their living from their shrimp and scallop boat. But the holiday trip lets them take a slight break from the water and meet new people.

"That is one of our winter jobs," Thomas said.

"I always look forward to it, it is a change of pace," Michele said.

So the couple packed up their camper and started their journey days before Thanksgiving with plans to arrive in the Big Apple by today.

Their final destination is a 5-foot-by-100-foot area north of Greenwich Village, a spot five blocks from the Empire State Building.

When they arrive, they make a phone call to the owner of Evergreen Tree Products, their partner, and within hours steps are taken to create a Christmas tree stand.

First, carpenters come to build the new stand for the trees. Then, electricians show up to light up the area with Christmas lights.

When the stand is fully functional, a large storage truck drives up to the stand and off-loads hundreds of trees right into street.

"We are dealing with a totally different mentality," Michele said.

After the delivery, the couple must then unwrap the trees and ready them for sale.

They said they deal fir species -- Balsams, Frasiers and Douglas -- all mostly from Canada. Each type of tree sells for a different price per foot, Thomas said, with Frasiers commanding the best price -- $20 per foot.

Thomas said everybody has their own preferences and concerns.

"All different people want all different trees," he said.

He also described the neighborhood as economically diverse, with middle-class houses straddling lower-income apartment buildings.

The Gilmartins offer free delivery with the purchase of a tree. They deliver the trees, locally, on a bicycle.

The couple said that a large portion of their customers do not bat an eyelash at spending more than $100 for a tree, adding that it's a strange way of thinking coming from a region where trees are plentiful.

The couple also harvests mistletoe, holly and pine cones while driving cross country so they can sell them and make wreaths to sell.

While in New York, the couple runs the stand 24 hours a day. They live in their camper that is parked off the road near the stand and take turns sleeping.

Michele said she has sold trees at 3 a.m. and is not surprised when she is approached at that time of day.

"New York is most definitely the city that never sleeps," Thomas said.

While selling trees all day, every day may sound a bit boring, the couple said the big city has offered sights they would not see in Nikiski, including episodes of TV programs "Seinfeld" and "Law and Order" being filmed near their stand.

The big city life is a change for the couple. Michele was raised in Soldotna and Thomas has lived in Alaska since 1989, although he grew up near Atlantic City.

Their first trip was one of few expectations and a bit of fear.

"We went with the intentions of defending ourselves," Thomas said.

But he said it was not that way at all. The residents were friendly, and they appreciate the couple's presence.

Michele admitted she did experience some culture shock for the first couple of years, but now she looks forward to the season.

"When we pull up to the sidewalk, it is like we never left," Michele said.

Though the couple would like to stay in Alaska for the holidays, they said they enjoy their clients.

"Everyone is so friendly, they expect us back," they said.

The couple said the adventure of traveling attracted them to the job, but they also enjoy the income the busy weeks bring it.

"This Christmas tree stand was right up our alley," Thomas said.

The couple will sell trees until midnight Christmas Eve. They will then travel to Southern New Jersey to spend Christmas with Thomas' family.

On the trip home, they will stop in Louisiana and then Seattle to visit family and friends and have plans to be back in Alaska in the second week of January.

"Were going to do the whole tour," Michele said.

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