Christmas on Jane Street: A True Storyby Billy Romp, Wanda Urbanska
Every holiday season for ten years, Billy Romp, his wife, and their three young children have spent nearly a month living in a tiny camper and selling Christmas trees on Jane Street in New York City. They arrive from Vermont the day after Thanksgiving and leave just in time to make it home for Christmas morning -- and for a few weeks they transform a corner of the Big… See more details below
Every holiday season for ten years, Billy Romp, his wife, and their three young children have spent nearly a month living in a tiny camper and selling Christmas trees on Jane Street in New York City. They arrive from Vermont the day after Thanksgiving and leave just in time to make it home for Christmas morning -- and for a few weeks they transform a corner of the Big Apple into a small town that might be the setting for a classic Capra film.
One neighbor strings a power line from his basement to their festively decorated van; another provides them with a phone line; still others drop off spare keys to nearby apartments so they'll have a place to take a hot shower. The local meter maid "forgets" to ticket them for parking violations; Broadway producers turn up with theater tickets, and the Romps return the city's generosity by giving trees and wreaths to homes in need. It's a unique and inspiring story -- and this lovely, lovingly illustrated little gem of a book is a wonderful celebration of one family and the warm, wide circle of friends who have created a Christmas tradition all their own.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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- 5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.25(d)
Read an Excerpt
Christmas on Jane Street
A True Story
Our Village in the Village
Ellie and I had spent the morningsettingup Christmastrees when she sprang it on me. "Why don't we rearrange things for a change? Bring the smaller; scragglier trees from Jane Street, where fewer people see them, to Eighth Avenue and move our Fraser and Douglas firs over there."
At first, I was only half listening. My mind had jumped ahead to the coming month. Watching the noisy stream of cars, trucks, and taxicabs rushing toward us up Eighth Avenue, I could see the entire season unfold in my mind's eye. The pace of my business would start out slowly, build steam during the second week, and peak during the two weekends before Christmas. Tree sales would wind down just before the holiday and be limited to harried, last-minute shoppers and a dwindling number of traditionalists who set up their trees on Christmas Eve. But Ellie's insistent eyes, fixed on mine, demanded a response.
New York City always seemed to spark new ideas in her—in principle, a good thing. Still, I couldn't help but wish that this particular brainstorm had occurred at another, less pressured time. On the opening day of tree sales, after most of the stand had been set up, I wasn't looking for a change in plan. I wanted the stand to be neat, organized, and efficient for business on Saturday. So, while Patti and I try to honor the children's creative impulses whenever possible, I wasn't about to alter the layout of the stand.
"I like your idea, Ellie," I started, trying to be tactful. "But I'm afraid that we're going to stick with things the way they are."
Her brown eyes fixed on mineand for an instant it was hard to read her. Did she think I was becoming too rigid? Could she be right?
Over the years, I've learned that there are certain rules for selling at Christmastime. The first is that people crave predictability. Naturally, customers want to see the same high-quality trees year after year, preferably sold by the same caring hands. But it is equally important for them to know where to find things. Once they learn the lay of the land, they like to go back to the same spot to find their tree "just like last year."
"But, Daddy," she protested. "You always say you can learn by trying new things."
Though I like to think of myself as flexible and open-minded, the reality is that once I've found a system that works, I like to stick to it.
"True," I allowed. "But people don't like unexpected changes—not at Christmas."
Ellie gave me a look, then, seeming to understand my point, let it go. "Whatever," she said, lifting an unadorned wreath from a stack. Using thin wire, she nimbly fastened on a shiny red bow and some pinecones. Then her mind seemed to leap in another direction. "What time is it?" she asked.
I reached into my pocket, pulled out my aging silver pocketwatch—a family heirloom that I always bring to the city for good luck—and told her the time.
"I was wondering if Emma would be home from school soon," Ellie said.
Emma was Ellie's best friend in Manhattan. Emma lived one block north of the stand on Eighth Avenue in a fancy two-story apartment. The two girls have known each other almost all of their lives. Ellie's first-ever sleep-over was at Emma's apartment when the girls were four years old, and their friendship has flourished ever since. During the eleven months of the year when we live in Vermont, Ellie and Emma correspond constantly. They always write in any color other than black or blue, and every letter is sealed with some fancy sticker. Horses, rainbows, and hearts were that season's favorites.
Just as Ellie and Emma observe rituals in their friendship, I have rituals that serve my business. After many years of experience I have come to believe that there's a right way and a wrong way to handle trees. In my view, a Christmas tree is not merely a piece of merchandise, it's something worthy of respect. You start by unloading the truck right. Though the trees are bound into tight versions of themselves for easy travel, once they arrive at the stand, you don't just pick up these sleeping beauties and hurl them into the street. Instead you unload them gently, careful not to damage the branches. I lay mine lovingly on the sidewalk, where they rest until I decide where to display them.
We arrange our trees by size, grade, and species, with the large, premium Douglas, Fraser; and balsam firs occupying the prime "real estate" along the higher-traffic Eighth Avenue sidewalk and "the Charlie Browns" and other bargain merchandise along Jane Street. (The Charlie Browns are the scraggly balsam trees that stand three and a half feet or less.) We like to joke with price-conscious customers that the Charlie Browns are trees that only a child or an imaginative adult—could love. So whenever customers buy one, they feel virtuous, like they have adopted a stray cat from the pound.
Sidewalk space is limited, so I stand most of the trees, still bundled in string, several rows deep and lean them against the tree racks near the street curbs. Then I select a few trees for display to open and bring to life. I lean these against the fence of the Jane Street Community Garden. As pedestrians stroll the sidewalks on Eighth Avenue and Jane Street, they're flanked by trees on their left and right, as though they are walking through an aromatic Vermont forest.
When you're in the Christmas tree business, nothing feels quite as sacred as opening a tree. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the tree exhale as you snip the strings and loosen its branches. In one fell swoop, that tree is transformed from little more than a lifeless bundle to the grand creature, dancing with branches, that God intended it to be.
This may sound strange, but I try to make a personal connection with each tree that passes through my stand. Each tree has its own individual personality, which I try to coax out when I loosen its branches while holding on to its trunk. There are those special trees you can't help but get close to. I've become so attached to some that I have had a hard time letting them go. A regal beauty that deserves pampering shouldn't wind up in an apartment shared by three roommates under the age of thirty. They might go away weekends and be gone on Christmas Day, leaving the tree alone and thirsty. I've seen it happen. Once I even told a customer that the tree she'd selected had been sold when it wasn't true. I just couldn't stand to see her take home a tree that was meant for a loving family. It would have been like witnessing a marriage between two people who were fundamentally incompatible and not speaking up when you had the chance.
Christmas on Jane Street
A True Story. Copyright © by Billy Romp. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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