Stockton resident, Wayne Segale glanced across Benjamin Holt Drive and pointed to a site that 50 years ago was home to a plant nursery and driving range.
“That’s where it started,” he said.
That’s where a Christmas institution was born nearly 50 winters ago. Segale has sold Christmas trees to three generations of Central Valley residents, and there’s no sign of him slowing down any time soon.
Segale’s seasonal tree business was established by his father and uncle in Murphys in 1937. Wayne Segale moved the business to the corner of Pacific Avenue and Ben Holt Drive in 1959 and since then, Segale Bros. has become as much a part of Christmas in Stockton as the lights on Weber Avenue.
Segale Bros. is the largest tree seller in Stockton, but despite all its Christmas clout, the non-stop cycle of Christmas tree selling is mercifully short. In fact, business is so brisk in the post-Thanksgiving rush that Segale expects to have all 1,800 trees sold by December 14.
“I eat Thanksgiving dinner standing up,” he said.
In that time frame he expects to sell $50,000 worth of trees. Not bad for 17 days of work.
His motto: “Sell early, sell fast.”
Segale has seen many changes in the past five decades. He complained that many families are opting for artificial trees or, even worse, no tree at all. He has had an increasing number of customers buy small trees or tree branches to bring the smell of a live tree into their homes. But nothing can replace the smell of a brand new Christmas tree, he said.
Segale also worries about his customers suffering holiday fatigue with the season starting earlier each year.
“It just wears them out,” he said.
He sells everything from 1 ½ -foot-tall trees for offices and apartments all the way up to 15-foot-tall outdoor giants. The trees cost from $25 to $250.
“We buy the best trees you can buy,” he said.
Segale has 15 regular employees who’ve been helping him trim, fit and load trees for the past several years. His wife works the cash register.
“It isn’t like selling caskets,” he said. “Everybody’s happy to be buying a tree.”
All of Segale’s trees come from a farm in Springfield, Ore. The trees are grown 6 to 8 feet apart on rotating plots of land. Each is individually handled and shaped by the tree grower over a 5- to 10-year growing process.
The cheapest and most popular Christmas tree is the Douglas fir. These bright green trees take 4 to 5 years to reach the typical height of 7 to 8 feet, Segale said. They are easier and cheaper to grow because the limbs are cut to achieve the classical conical Christmas tree look.
But the Cadillac of Christmas trees is the silvery Nobel fir. These trees only grow in the mountains of Oregon and Washington and can take 10 years to grow tall enough for sale. The trees are much sought after for their layered look and the fact that last longer than other cut trees before drying out. A top notch, 15-foot-tall Nobel can fetch as much as $250.
Segale has established many Christmas traditions of his own through the years. For example, he gives his customers a free apple and tree sapling when they buy a Christmas tree to honor the business’s patriarch who died several years ago. Many of his saplings have been planted and dot the San Joaquin landscape.
“I could go all over town and point out who has one of my trees,” he said.
The Christmas tree business is not without its pitfalls, Segale said. He has had to move his lot from one side of the street to the other following ownership changes. Dealing with city and county bureaucracy is an annual trial. Other years he saw massive rainstorms that filled his temporary tent with water that had to be pumped out before customers arrived.
But Segale still gets a thrill out of selling trees.
“Once it gets in your blood you never get it out,” he said.