SLIDESHOW | Oh Christmas tree! Selling a holiday icon

Gerry McDermott has been selling Christmas trees in downtown Toronto for 59 years

Behind the Christmas decorations, tree sales remain a profitable and enduring business

Selling a holiday icon 3:13

There's a rap at the trailer door and the sound of excited voices. Gerry McDermott angles himself out of his seat and out into the crisp Toronto cold to help his latest customers find a Christmas tree.

It's a young couple, out for a mid-sized tree that will fit their apartment.

"We want the perfect tree," buyer Hannell Kivinen says.

McDermott shows the couple a few trees spread across his lot, and soon they're leaving with a handsome Fraser Fir.

"Everyone wants the perfect tree," McDermott says with a gruff laugh. "It's always nice when you can satisfy them."

McDermott, 80, has been operating his tree lot at the corner of Parliament and (appropriately) Spruce Street for 59 years. Every Dec. 1, he tows a trailer from his Bracebridge, Ont., home and sets up his lot of around 100 trees. He’ll work until Christmas Eve. McDermott usually sells 1,000 a year, though he says he always ends up leaving a few behind for those who don’t have a tree at the last minute.

Canada harvests about 5.5 million Christmas trees each year, according to the Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association. The organization reports that in 2006, Christmas tree exports were worth $35 million.

In McDermott’s experience, the trees get more expensive for him and for his customers every year, rising in price from a dollar or two when he started 1952 to upwards of $100 today.

On this chilly Monday, he sells a few trees, but it's slow. The weekends are the busiest time for his business, he says, and he’s expecting the next one will be hectic.

While McDermott founded the business and grows the trees, it was his late father who really loved selling them. A master salesman — only one salesman ever sold more trees during a single day, McDermott says – his father, who has since passed away, would take his Christmas holidays to join his son on the lot. McDermott worked alongside his father until the elder McDermott’s health forced him to quit in 1995.

"His birthday was Dec. 20, and he always had it on the lot here, and mine is May 11th… I was always planting ‘em, which suited me," McDermott says.

He doesn’t stay overnight in the trailer anymore, like his mother and father once did, but McDermott works long days, often driving north of the city to collect more trees and bring them back downtown.

McDermott mostly grows his own trees, carefully pruning the best for about eight years before bringing them to market. The Fraser fir is the most popular variety because it holds its needles well — "it could last until Easter," McDermott says with a chuckle — but it doesn't have the classic smell of a spruce. McDermott also keeps two different types of pine trees with longer needles for people looking for a different look.

"That’s the thing about the tree business," McDermott says. "What’s perfect to one person isn’t perfect to another."

So what’s McDermott’s favourite Christmas tree? The big spruces his father used to bring home for his mother to decorate. Give McDermott those memories, Dean Martin singing a Christmas song on the radio of his pickup truck and he's happy.