UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: Hey, listeners. It is NPR fundraising season, and the easiest way to support our show is to go to donate.npr.org/planetmoney and just donate to your local NPR station. That is donate.npr.org/planetmoney. Thanks so much.
SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.
NICK FOUNTAIN, HOST:
ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
FOUNTAIN: Hey, Christmas tree here.
SMITH: PLANET MONEY Christmas tree.
The day after Thanksgiving, Nick, you and I participated in a grand American tradition - trying to make a buck off a religious holiday.
FOUNTAIN: You guys need a Christmas tree?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We're good, thanks.
SMITH: Christmas trees.
FOUNTAIN: Look at that beauty right there.
SMITH: PLANET MONEY Christmas trees.
FOUNTAIN: We had a pickup truck filled with Christmas trees, a few signs on a corner in a fancy Brooklyn neighborhood, and we were ready to make some cash.
RYAN BLACKWELL: How much does a 6 to 7-foot Christmas tree go for this year?
FOUNTAIN: We're asking for $150.
BLACKWELL: And people are actually paying $150?
FOUNTAIN: No. No, they are not.
SMITH: Not a single person.
FOUNTAIN: That's why we still have a truck full of trees.
BLACKWELL: So you're trying to dupe people into buying too-expensive Christmas trees. Is that what's going on?
SMITH: I don't think it's duping. It's seeing what the market will bear.
BLACKWELL: OK. And the market so far has borne nothing.
FOUNTAIN: He was right. We were striking out. What was it? Were our prices too high? Was our sales pitch off? Maybe people couldn't see our fancy podcast microphones.
SMITH: I think we got a customer.
AMANDA SIDRAN: (Laughter) We're curious if this is a tree sale or if it's a news program.
SMITH: It is both.
A SIDRAN: Whoa.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Whoa.
SMITH: I know - kind of crazy.
FOUNTAIN: Amanda and Leo Sidran and some extended family were headed to the park when they saw our sign. It was just a matter of reeling them in.
SMITH: Are you interested in a tree?
LEO SIDRAN: Yes.
A SIDRAN: Yes.
L SIDRAN: We are interested in a tree.
SMITH: Excellent. We were just discussing how much to charge for them because we have a...
L SIDRAN: I overheard you say that you think they might be worth $150.
SMITH: Before we put a price on this tree, would you like to hear the story of the tree?
L SIDRAN: Of course.
L SIDRAN: (Laughter).
SMITH: Picture, if you will, a farm in the middle of Pennsylvania, rolling hills. There are cows. There's a beautiful little barn off in the distance. And you're thinking, oh, is this where they grow the Christmas trees? But no, this is where they auction the Christmas trees.
FOUNTAIN: All right, ready? Three, two (vocalizing).
FOUNTAIN: Crossfade with walking sounds - footsteps in a field.
SMITH: One week ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
SMITH: All right.
FOUNTAIN: Good morning, Mifflinburg.
SMITH: Woo. Beautiful, beautiful day.
FOUNTAIN: Sunrise, 38 degrees...
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)
SMITH: Going to be warm today - not very Christmassy.
(SOUNDBITE OF EMILY LIM AND VINCE WEBB'S "OUR HOLIDAY ROMANCE")
SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.
FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. And we are in Mifflinburg, Pa.
SMITH: You know, every time I've had a Christmas tree, I somehow pictured it cut down from a snowy forest by a burly lumberjack and it magically appearing on my street corner. But really, there are a bunch of weird, fascinating steps in between that determine exactly how many Christmas trees get sold and how expensive they are.
FOUNTAIN: Today on the show, we visit the world's largest auction of Christmas trees, where the yuletide dreams of boys and girls meet the hard reality of supply and demand.
SMITH: We have a thousand dollars in cash.
FOUNTAIN: We have a pickup truck. Anything could happen.
(SOUNDBITE OF EMILY LIM AND VINCE WEBB'S "OUR HOLIDAY ROMANCE")
FOUNTAIN: Let's just take a moment. That is a lot of trees.
SMITH: Oh, it's amazing.
FOUNTAIN: The Buffalo Valley auction center is a big warehouse plopped down in the middle of prime Pennsylvania farmland.
SMITH: The Christmas trees are stacked like firewood in this big quarter-mile circle around the building.
FOUNTAIN: As far as the eye can see.
SMITH: It looks like an evergreen wall surrounding the property, like it's a medieval castle. Each of the trees is wrapped in twine and piled in mounds the size of a truck. And in front of each mound is a single tree that's unwrapped so you can smell the needles or count the rings or kick the stump - whatever people do here.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Good morning.
SMITH: Hey. We're looking for the office for the Courtneys.
FOUNTAIN: There are 45,000 Christmas trees here - so many that the auction doesn't take place inside the building.
SMITH: Oh, we have topiary over here.
FOUNTAIN: No, the auctioneer is going to move from tree pile to tree pile on the back of a pickup truck.
NEIL COURTNEY: Check. Check. Check.
SMITH: And we hear that auctioneer before we spot him.
FOUNTAIN: Neil Courtney is getting ready to haul himself into the back of the auction pickup truck. There's a tiny stool for him in the back. The auction starts in 10 minutes, so we're already talking fast.
SMITH: How long have you done this?
COURTNEY: I've been on the tree truck 30 years.
FOUNTAIN: What's the deal with the little stool?
COURTNEY: The little stool is where I sit.
SMITH: That is a tiny, little stool. And you are not a tiny, little man.
COURTNEY: It'll be all right.
SMITH: You have a sense of balance on the back of the truck?
COURTNEY: I do.
SMITH: Have you ever fallen off?
COURTNEY: No, the chair is screwed fast.
COURTNEY: Got you.
SMITH: Neil says this big Christmas tree auction started as a way to make his professional life just a little bit easier. Thirty years ago, he was a traveling auctioneer. Farmers would bring him out to their farm to auction off, well, you know, anything they had to sell. And eventually, Neil and a bunch of farmers thought, why not build an auction center and cut out all that driving?
COURTNEY: Centralized location.
SMITH: Yeah. What if everyone comes to me?
COURTNEY: And they did it. People said, no one will cut trees and bring them. They cut trees and brought them.
FOUNTAIN: Thirty years ago, Neil sold $3,000 worth of Christmas trees here. Today, he's hoping he's going to auction off $1.3 million worth of needles and branches.
SMITH: But to hit that huge number, everything will have to go perfectly. And Neil has this theory that this year will be the hottest auction in the last 30 years. He can just feel it. With everyone stuck at home during a pandemic, he thinks people are desperate for something cheerful.
COURTNEY: And Christmas is going to be huge. Christmas is going to be huge.
SMITH: You think people will get more trees, more boughs, more holly?
COURTNEY: They're going to make Christmas, yeah.
SMITH: If this is, indeed, a banner year for Christmas trees, the market will sense it here first. This is definitely the largest tree-for-all in the nation - tree-for-all. Hundreds of buyers and sellers come together in one spot. The farmers truck in conifers from across Pennsylvania and as far away as Canada and North Carolina.
FOUNTAIN: Little trees for apartments that were planted only a few years ago. Big 18-footers for apartment building lobbies - those take over a decade to grow. And it's not just your classic Fraser firs.
COURTNEY: We got Frasers, we got Douglas, we got Turkish fur, we got Canaans, we got concolors. We got blue spruce, Serbians, Nordmanns - lots of different varieties.
FOUNTAIN: I've never heard of most of those varieties.
COURTNEY: Well, you're going to hear - the Douglas and the Fraser are the two you hear. The rest are exotics. And that's our...
SMITH: We suddenly hear a loudspeaker calling for the start of the auction.
COURTNEY: I guess that means I got to get to work. Check. Check. Oh, that's hot.
FOUNTAIN: Neil climbs up into the bed of the pickup and onto the little stool.
COURTNEY: Go ahead, Bill (ph).
FOUNTAIN: And the truck drives off along a dirt path towards tree pile No. 1.
Good luck with the driving.
SMITH: I don't know where all the buyers were hiding, but as the truck moves into position, the crowd starts to assemble - maybe a hundred guys - and they're mostly guys - in hoodies and Carhartts.
FOUNTAIN: They work at garden centers, hardware stores. Some are just planning to set up in a vacant corner lot. And they're all here looking for a good deal.
SMITH: Excuse me. My name's Robert Smith.
I position myself next to a man who looks like he spends a lot of time outside.
CARY NALLS: My name is Cary Nalls.
SMITH: And where do you work? What do you do?
NALLS: Alexandria, Va., in the farm market business.
SMITH: That's right outside of Washington, D.C. Cary has this brick-red baseball cap. It's the only one in the crowd. Maybe it's just fashion. Maybe it's some sort of auction trick to get the best deal. That's unclear. But what is clear is that everyone will need some sort of edge today.
NALLS: This is going to be a day like nobody's ever seen.
SMITH: How many do you need?
NALLS: Don't need any. But if the right stuff's there at the right money, it could be a thousand. It could be 2,000.
COURTNEY: Check. Check.
FOUNTAIN: Neil, the auctioneer, is ready.
COURTNEY: Just about showtime.
FOUNTAIN: His mic is hot.
COURTNEY: All right, ladies and gentlemen, here we go. We're going to give you the terms and conditions for today's action. Ladies and gentlemen, your eye's your guide, your checkbook talks. When I say sold, it's yours, OK?
FOUNTAIN: Neil runs through a few more rules, and then...
COURTNEY: Ladies and gentlemen, let's get the show off the ground. You're on, Harvey (ph).
HARVEY: We're going to start here?
COURTNEY: You're set. You bet.
HARVEY: Five 12-foot concolors.
COURTNEY: Five 12-foot concolor - what are you going to give? What are you going to give? Two hundred to go. (Vocalizing).
SMITH: Did he just say $200 a tree?
FOUNTAIN: That's just the first number out of his mouth. It's meant to prime the pump, to anchor expectations. Watch. Watch. He's going to quickly drop the price.
COURTNEY: Seventy-five - 75, 75 to buy (ph). Fifty dollars - 55, 65, 75, 85, 95, 100 (ph). Going to buy at a hundred (ph). Going to buy at 95, a hundred (ph). You bought it. Number?
SMITH: Sold for $95 a tree. And you can feel a chill go through the crowd. It's about $15 more than last year. Neil was right. This is going to be a hot year for Christmas trees.
FOUNTAIN: A lot of the buyers aren't even bidding yet. Lynn Fama (ph) has a garden center in New Jersey.
LYNN FAMA: The prices are a little high right now. We're going to wait (laughter).
SMITH: Well, I hear if you wait, you might have to pay even more.
FAMA: Then we'll be going home with nothing.
SMITH: After each sale, the auction truck starts up and moves about 7 feet down the road, stops in front of the next pile, and the auction starts all over again.
COURTNEY: Hundred dollar - (unintelligible).
FOUNTAIN: Neil can auction off a pile of 50 trees in 30 seconds flat. Cary with the red hat has been right in the middle of the bidding.
SMITH: I've come to check in. What's it looking like this year?
NALLS: It'd be a good year to be a tree farmer and have trees here to sell. They're bringing big money for them.
SMITH: So that means a bad year to be in retail business?
NALLS: Well, you just got to adjust your figures a little bit. You know, there's not enough to go around for everybody, so you got to get in there and get them.
SMITH: Cary is already lowering his standards. The very best trees here are graded No. 1. Cary was desperate and buying No. 2 grade trees. These are trees that are, you know, misshapen or have a big bald spot on the back.
NALLS: I bought misfits.
SMITH: You bought misfits.
NALLS: Yeah, misfits. Got to give them a home, too. Everybody's watched Charlie Brown at Christmas.
SMITH: Washington, D.C., you're getting misfits this year.
NALLS: Good misfits. Check back with me in a little bit.
SMITH: You know, there's something Cary said that stuck with me. There are not enough trees to go around, which seems incredible with 45,000 trees here. But there's clearly something unusual going on this year beyond just the increased demand during a pandemic.
FOUNTAIN: If there's a supply problem, we need to go to the source, to the growers. And it wasn't hard to find them. They were the folks hanging out of the back of the pack with huge smiles on their faces as prices went up and up.
BYRON MITCHELL: These prices are amazing.
SMITH: Even for the misfit trees.
B MITCHELL: My name's Byron Mitchell (ph), and this is my wife.
HOLLY MITCHELL: Holly Mitchell (ph).
SMITH: And where is your farm? Where do you grow?
B MITCHELL: Oh, in Gaines-Galeton, Pa., area.
SMITH: The Mitchells have about 250 acres of trees, which sounds like a lot. But Byron says, in fact, this year, all across the nation, we are experiencing a critical shortage of Christmas trees.
FOUNTAIN: Not because of COVID, but because of the way Christmas trees are grown. Remember how we said that it takes about a decade to grow a decent-sized Christmas tree? The seedlings of this year's shortage were planted 10 years ago.
SMITH: They were planted during the Great Recession. Now, I didn't know about this because at the time, I was covering, you know, banks going under. But during those years, the tree farming business also collapsed. Remember how no one was buying real estate and there were all those new homes that were, you know, either vacant or foreclosed upon? Well, no one was buying evergreen trees for landscaping. And the farmers who grow those trees, they'd lost this huge revenue stream. And so in desperation, they started to cut the landscaping trees to sell as Christmas trees.
FOUNTAIN: That Christmas during the Recession, trees flooded the market. Byron remembers the prices plunging. Trees that might usually sell for $24...
B MITCHELL: Here at the auction, $7 apiece. We were losing money. It was just cash flow to keep the business running.
SMITH: The price for trees was so low that during the worst year, 2013, farmers started to give up entirely. They didn't even bother cutting the trees down and shipping them to market.
B MITCHELL: We had fields of trees, literally thousands and thousands. We probably lost somewhere in the realm of 75,000 to 100,000 trees that we just let grow because we couldn't afford to maintain them any longer.
FOUNTAIN: People stopped planting new trees. A lot of tree farms went out of business. Byron estimates half of his fellow tree farmers gave up. The Mitchells only survived because a gas company came in to lease some of their land for fracking.
SMITH: And that's why there are so few farmers here, so few trees up for auction this year all these years later. These trees that we see today are the miraculous survivors of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
FOUNTAIN: And to the survivors go the riches.
H MITCHELL: It gives us hope for the future - the prices that we're seeing today - that we're going to be able to continue. And in the springtime, we'll be able to plant seedlings. So that way, in 10 years, we'll have more trees to keep going.
SMITH: A nationwide shortage of trees - you know, when I heard that, I got that feeling - that feeling you get when you're shopping online and you see a little pop-up that says, only three items left at this price. And you start clicking because you lose all your rational thought because you just have to buy it now.
FOUNTAIN: You thinking what I'm thinking?
SMITH: We should buy a metric-buttload of trees.
FOUNTAIN: I mean, if we can get it at a good enough price, we could totally turn a profit in New York. Everything is expensive in New York. We can't not buy them, really.
SMITH: It's weirdly easy to turn from being reporters to auction participants. We walk over to the auctioneer's son, Ben. We fill in a form. He doesn't ask if we know what we're doing or if we have enough money or even if we have a truck.
FOUNTAIN: Although we did come ready, just in case. I got a thousand dollars cash in my pocket and a small pickup truck.
SMITH: It is the world's smallest pickup truck.
FOUNTAIN: No, it has a 6-foot bed and a lumber rack.
SMITH: Ben hands us an official piece of paper with our number, 1099, written on it in big Sharpie. That is our bidder number.
FOUNTAIN: Ten ninety-nine, like the tax form. We plunge into the crowd gathered behind the auction truck.
SMITH: Starting to feel a little desperate. We got a show to fill.
FOUNTAIN: By this point, we kind of understand how the auction works. You do not bid on the first price you hear. That's just the teaser number.
SMITH: You do have to be able to do math quickly in your head. The number you hear from the auctioneer is the price per tree. But if you bid and win, you get the whole pile of trees. You, all of a sudden, own 57 Fraser firs.
FOUNTAIN: I spot a pile I like - 40 cute little trees that would fit in my truck and inside tiny New York apartments. And while we're trying to figure out what they're worth, Neil starts auctioning them off.
COURTNEY: What are you going to give? What are you going to give? What are you going to give? What are you going to give? Fifty dollars - 50, (unintelligible).
SMITH: Wait until the price drops.
COURTNEY: Twenty bucks. Twenty bucks.
SMITH: Twenty bucks for this thing on the...
FOUNTAIN: It keeps going down.
COURTNEY: Two and a half. Twenty-two and a half.
FOUNTAIN: Twenty-two and a half.
SMITH: Put up the action number.
FOUNTAIN: I got 26. I got 26.
SMITH: You got 26. Oh, 26, 27 - somebody's bidding against you.
FOUNTAIN: I can't do it. I can't go more.
SMITH: Do it. Do it.
FOUNTAIN: No, no.
SMITH: Oh, wait, 27.
FOUNTAIN: Did I bid 27?
SMITH: No, you bid 26.
COURTNEY: Talk to me.
FOUNTAIN: We missed it by a dollar.
SMITH: We go over to talk to the pro who beat us, Steve Krop (ph) of Virginia.
FOUNTAIN: Did you just buy these?
STEVE KROP: Yeah.
FOUNTAIN: You just beat me by a dollar.
SMITH: You just outbid us.
KROP: Daggonit (ph).
FOUNTAIN: I thought I could get a steal, but then you just swooped in there.
KROP: No, I started it. I started it. I was at 20. You went up to 26. I was like, what are you doing? We got to work together.
FOUNTAIN: Seriously, let's collude.
KROP: Yeah, we got to work together.
FOUNTAIN: Now, we should be jumping right back in, but Robert is just kind of wandering off, muttering - I don't know - about flaws in auction theory.
SMITH: So I know it's capitalism, and I know that's the way the market works, right? You know, this is price discovery. But we don't know anything.
FOUNTAIN: It's true. We are complete idiots.
SMITH: We're complete idiots. So are those really worth $27? I mean, that guy's willing to pay it, but he had to have something. We bid it up. If we hadn't been here, would it have gone for 20, 21? What is the price of that tree?
FOUNTAIN: The price is what he paid for it, man.
SMITH: (Laughter) You know, I did remember there is a name for this in economics. It's called the winner's curse. By definition, in order to win an auction, you have to bid more than everyone else thinks the object is worth. Throw in a couple of city boys like us, and this whole efficient markets thing goes out the window.
FOUNTAIN: Also, it's starting to seem like there are other inefficiencies here. We spot the red hat of Cary Nalls, the guy who sells just outside of Washington, D.C., and ask him how he's doing.
NALLS: Fantastic. I swear I just kicked - yeah, it's been good.
SMITH: Wait a minute; you are smiling. I did not expect that earlier this morning. You were grim-faced.
NALLS: That's what makes this business so fascinating is that it turns, just spins right out from you.
SMITH: Well, explain to me what happened. What'd you get? Why are you so happy?
NALLS: They must've all been sleeping or something. I don't know. Somebody came over there with a box of donuts, and half the buyers went over there to get them a free donut. And I just scooped them up.
SMITH: What did you get? How many?
NALLS: Just a couple piles.
SMITH: Piles of trees, not piles of doughnuts. Cary, though, has inspired me to think creatively, to just, like, grab the moment. And I'm thinking, let's go for misfit trees.
FOUNTAIN: The No. 2 trees.
SMITH: This is where we brand the Zoom tree. I think, like - I don't think anyone's tried this yet. Hear me out here. For a lot of people, their social life now and their work life is on Zoom, right?
SMITH: And so you want to have a nice background that says, like, oh, you know, I'm enjoying the holidays. And it doesn't matter if it's a good tree. It just has to look good on Zoom.
FOUNTAIN: Right, right, right.
SMITH: It's just like nobody's wearing pants anymore.
SMITH: We get a skanky - we get a flawed No. 2 tree, and then we just mark it Zoom trees. We add 20 bucks to it.
FOUNTAIN: I'm loving it. Let's do it.
Then we spot them - the smallest pile of No. 2 trees around.
Nineteen, 6 to 7 feet.
SMITH: These are hefty trees.
FOUNTAIN: We could sell 19 trees in New York.
SMITH: So we're making our stand here.
FOUNTAIN: Can you guys who know something about trees tell us how much these are going to go for?
SMITH: Nobody knows. And then it's too late. Neil and his auction truck pulls up.
COURTNEY: Which ones? Right there.
FOUNTAIN: I make eye contact with Neil...
COURTNEY: I see Lower Manhattan. Give me 100.
FOUNTAIN: ...But don't bid yet.
COURTNEY: A hundred dollars. Fifty dollars - (unintelligible).
SMITH: OK, we're $50. Are you in? Are you in, Nick?
COURTNEY: Thirty-seven and a half.
SMITH: Nick finally bids, but he's quickly outmatched.
COURTNEY: Fifty-two and a half.
FOUNTAIN: Fifty-two and a half.
COURTNEY: OK, he's doing 52.
SMITH: Nick bids $55 a tree. And then, I cannot believe I'm seeing this...
FOUNTAIN: Fifty-seven and a half.
COURTNEY: You're already in, pal.
SMITH: ...He bids against himself.
COURTNEY: And you only get one free pass a day, 55. Fifty-seven and a half? You just went past go. You bought them.
FOUNTAIN: Hell yeah.
SMITH: Yeah. We got them. We got trees.
COURTNEY: NPR strikes. What's the number, guys?
FOUNTAIN: Ten ninety-nine.
COURTNEY: Ten ninety-nine - largest news media group in the country.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: You bought those things?
FOUNTAIN: Oh, no.
SMITH: Wait, what? Wait.
FOUNTAIN: Immediately, people start giving us a hard time about the price we paid. But you know what? We don't care. We got trees. We start throwing them in the bed of my pickup.
SMITH: All we have to do now is bring them back to Brooklyn and sell these 19 trees for a profit. When our show continues after...
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR TRUNK CLOSING)
SMITH: Wait, what?
One second. I got to - Nick.
FOUNTAIN: The truck is full.
SMITH: Well, you've only put in half the trees.
Yeah, we have seven trees we can't fit into Nick's tiny truck.
FOUNTAIN: It's a decent-sized truck.
SMITH: But Nick, ever the hustler, approaches a bunch of guys next to us...
FOUNTAIN: Excuse me, sir.
SMITH: No, you're not going to try it.
...And goes into sales mode.
FOUNTAIN: I bought them for 55.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: How many?
FOUNTAIN: Would you take them for 55?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: How about 50 bucks?
FOUNTAIN: It's worth it to me.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: OK, come on.
SMITH: Wait, did we just lose money already?
FOUNTAIN: We just lost seven times five - $35.
SMITH: OK, Nick, now are we ready?
FOUNTAIN: Just got to tie them down.
SMITH: And head for the big city after the break.
(SOUNDBITE OF GARY JAMES CROCKETT AND JASON GLOVER'S "BELLS AND BEATS")
SMITH: Well, now that you've heard the story...
FOUNTAIN: And so that brings us back to the day after Thanksgiving, a street corner in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the Sidran family listening to our every word, captivated by the story of why the Great Recession means they should pay $150 for a tree that we bought for 55.
SMITH: But the nice thing is when people - if someone were to see your tree, maybe in the background of a Zoom call or perhaps a visit, you could just say to them, hey, do you have 20 minutes, 'cause you could listen to an entire episode about this exact tree?
L SIDRAN: Yeah.
SMITH: I mean, that's just...
L SIDRAN: Well, that does make it more valuable.
SMITH: Yeah, definitely.
L SIDRAN: It could make it more valuable because, obviously, the story is - has currency. I mean, that's what you're selling us is a story.
FOUNTAIN: And a Christmas tree. Don't forget we're also selling you a Christmas tree.
A SIDRAN: Let's see the tree. Let's see the tree.
FOUNTAIN: Biggest one off the top.
SMITH: We pull the top tree off the pile, unwrap it. And honestly, it is not that bad. It's time to haggle.
FOUNTAIN: And immediately, we realized that because we told the Sidran family the story of the tree, we have lost a lot of our negotiating power.
L SIDRAN: We don't need to hear the show to know that these are second-rate trees, but...
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #1: Oh.
A SIDRAN: Ouch.
L SIDRAN: But frankly, there's no other trees out right now.
A SIDRAN: Yeah, not yet.
FOUNTAIN: There's a lot of demand in Brooklyn for trees this year.
L SIDRAN: What did they say they paid? They told us. They told us. If we roll back the tape, they're going to tell us what they paid.
SMITH: Well, I mean, there's all sorts of extra costs - the gas, I got a rental car, two hotel rooms.
FOUNTAIN: I bought loppers and a saw. I paid to park the truck in a garage because we didn't want the tree stolen.
SMITH: Brooklyn - meals, taxes, New Jersey tolls.
FOUNTAIN: But Leo Sidran is not buying it. He lobs a low-ball offer. The standard $10 per foot - that's the going rate around here.
L SIDRAN: I'm going to say 70 bucks for this tree.
SMITH: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.
L SIDRAN: Well, what do you think?
A SIDRAN: I mean, I think - I guess I would say $100.
FOUNTAIN: I will take $100 for this tree.
SMITH: Sold. Wait. He's shaking his head. He's shaking his head.
(Laughter) It's our first sale.
FOUNTAIN: And our only sale for a really long time.
SMITH: Yeah. We stood there for hours, and we tried every trick. We told the story of the miraculous Recession tree at least a dozen times. No one was impressed.
FOUNTAIN: Four hours later, as the sun was starting to set, we had only sold the one tree. And so we got desperate.
(SOUNDBITE OF COWBELL)
SMITH: We drove around Brooklyn with a cowbell - Christmas trees, Christmas - which actually got a few sales.
FOUNTAIN: We also sold one to Robert's wife, to his neighbor. I sold two to my neighbors.
SMITH: And then we just started to show up at our NPR colleagues' apartments, forcing them to buy a tree for the sake of the podcast.
Stacey Vanek Smith.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Robert Smith, how's it going? How's the Christmas tree business?
SMITH: How well could it be going if we're selling it to our coworkers at this point?
SMITH: Jacob Goldstein, we've come to sell you a tree.
JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: Thirty-five.
SMITH: Come on.
GOLDSTEIN: I'll give you 60 bucks.
SMITH: That's what Stacey paid. She even question it. She wanted to pay more.
GOLDSTEIN: Well, maybe it's worth more to her.
SMITH: Nick, I know you made a spreadsheet of our profits and loss.
FOUNTAIN: Here it is. With taxes, we paid $1,107.70 for the trees. And we sold all 19 of them for a grand total of $1,105.
SMITH: That is a loss of $2.70.
FOUNTAIN: Before expenses.
SMITH: Yes, there is that. So for the sake of accounting, I'm going to book all of the expenses into the cost of the podcast part of the venture. We'll call it goodwill. And so, basically, we're even.
FOUNTAIN: That is some creative accounting. Not going to lie, driving home that night, we were a little depressed.
SMITH: But later in the evening, one of our customers sent us a photo. Our tree was set up in their living room with sparkling lights and a little Santa on top. And, you know, it did not look like a misfit. It didn't look like a No. 2 tree. It looked like the Christmas tree of my childhood memories.
FOUNTAIN: And that family who paid $100 for their tree - Leo, Amanda, Sol, Zelta - they went home and - believe it or not - recorded this song about the experience. Leo Sidran, the dad, he's a composer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORY OF THE TREE")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Singing) Strolling through the neighborhood, wondering if maybe we'd find a tree for the family.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: (Singing) We tried and tried and tried and tried, tried to negotiate. And we paid a hundred dollars for a tree that's second-rate.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Singing) But it's funny...
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #3: (Singing) Funny, funny.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Singing) ...'Cause we bought it from the boys at PLANET MONEY.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #3: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.
SMITH: I know what you're thinking, but no. No, it is too late to buy a PLANET MONEY Christmas tree. But you can always support the show by donating to your local public radio station. That's donate.npr.org/planetmoney. Once again, donate.npr.org/planetmoney.
FOUNTAIN: Today's show was produced by James Sneed, with help from Gilly Moon. Bryant Urstadt is our editor. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. Special thanks to Matt Harsh (ph) for inspiring this episode and to my dad for giving me his truck, without which we could not have sold these trees.
SMITH: Some of these trees. It's a pretty small truck.
FOUNTAIN: (Laughter) It's a decent-sized truck. I'm Nick Fountain.
SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORY OF THE TREE")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Singing) Sap is running.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #3: (Singing) Running, running.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Singing) And we bought it from...
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: (Singing) The boys at PLANET MONEY.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #3: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: (Singing) Yes, we bought it from the boys at PLANET MONEY.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #3: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Singing) PLANET MONEY.
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