What is Christmas in the Lowcountry without tree lots, the sound of chain saws and a barrel of fire?
As usual, parking lots in the area this year served as platforms for vendors selling Fraser firs and other evergreen products. What was different, though, was a cautious optimism, a sense that, after a devastating couple of recession seasons, maybe all would be merry and bright again.
Kevin Walsh is tree lot chairman for the West Ashley Optimist Club, a service-oriented nonprofit that helps young people with college scholarships, sponsors essay and oratory contests, and backs youth teams at St. Andrew's Parks and Playground.
Of course, the club maintains a rosy outlook. "That's why we order too many trees," Walsh said.
Its annual Christmas tree sale, stationed near the parks and playground parking lot, is "the only big fundraiser we do," he said. The Optimists ordered 500 trees from a farm near Sparta, N.C., and had sold about half of them by Wednesday.
The lot is managed by volunteers who planned to wrap things up this weekend.
The group hoped to raise around $10,000. "Whatever we make, we give away," Walsh said. "That's our budget for the year."
Available were blue spruce trees, white pines and, of course, Fraser firs.
With Christmas approaching, some people in the area were out last week to procure a good tree before they all disappeared.
Chip and Sara Parker bought a Fraser fir from Russ Balderson of No Hassle Trees in the parking lot of The Plaza at East Cooper on a very cold morning. It was the last day of business for Balderson; of the 1,100 trees he ordered from Christmas Tree Hill Nursery in the mountains of North Carolina, only 50 or so were left in the lot.
The Parkers picked a medium-sized fir in the $50 price range and tied it to the top of their Volvo. Balderson said he'd figure out a way to get rid of the rest, probably by donating them to charity.
He said business was pretty good this year. He can tell because customers are buying the extras -- wreaths and garlands.
Just up the road from No Hassle was Cox Tree Service, run by Gregg Cox. He's been 21 years in this lot by the antique shop, and 2010 has been better for him, too.
"Two-thousand-nine was a strange year, a weird year," he said. "We ate a lot of trees." About 300 of them. "This is a good, steady year. ... This year we feel like we're right on schedule."
Cox said he appreciated the cold weather.
"Who wants to buy a Christmas tree when you have to bring a can of Off?"
The barrel of fire was smoking. Music was playing on the portable stereo. The big tent was missing to save money.
Cox is a former Isle of Palms firefighter who went into the tree-care business after Hurricane Hugo slammed through the area in 1989. His father has a tree farm in Moravian Falls, N.C., near Boone.
Billy Walker stopped by Tuesday to buy a long garland from Cox.
"My wife wants roping inside the house," he explained.
Christmas Tree Hill Nursery is 2,000 acres situated in Avery County, N.C., where Fraser firs are the No. 1 crop, according to Kurt Vance, whose family manages the farm. This year, sales are good, he said. People are buying real trees, though they're going for a smaller size to save a few dollars.
The nursery ships around 1,000 Frasers to the Charleston area, and works with a couple of vendors. including Balderson. The moist mountain summer was good to the trees this year, Vance said, and the firs shipped in good shape.
By the end of the week, business for most tree vendors was winding down. Some had closed their stands. A few piles of trimmings could still be seen here and there at abandoned selling stations -- the residue of holiday cheer.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.