Christmas tree lot an annual tradition

on December 11, 2009

Christmas is an especially special season for Rick Spencer.

For the 28th consecutive year, the 56-year-old Richmond native has hastily set up shop, outdoors and with a familiar aroma of verdant firs. Bab’s Christmas Trees is open for business at 1030 23rd Street.

“It’s in my blood,” Spencer said of running a small community business. “My customers come, usually they bring their kids, and then they go with a tree and everybody’s happy.”

Lot co-owner Rick Spencer installs barbed wire around his lot. He says he's dealing with tree theft this season.

Lot co-owner Rick Spencer installs barbed wire around his lot. He says he's dealing with tree theft this season.

As Spencer spoke late Tuesday afternoon, customers milled about his lot, eyeing prospects to serve as canopies for gifts and canvasses for decor.

He had about 250 trees on the lot, mostly Douglas Firs and Noble Firs, with a few towering Grand Firs sprinkled in.

Many of the trees were flocked with goblets of synthetic snow, made just a hint more natural amid the Bay Area’s recent cold snap, which dusted the Bay Area foothills with natural flakes. 

“The flocked trees are selling pretty well,” he said.

Spencer spoke as he took a break from nailing barbed wire around the perimeter of his lot, which he co-owns with his brother-in-law, Walt Russey, also a Richmond native. Tree thieves have hit his lot several times this season, a fact he attributes to the recession.

“We’ve been having some thefts at night,” he said, shrugging. “It’s a little game we playing, they come in, and we try to keep them out.” 

Spencer has plied a trade on the bustling 23rd Street business corridor since the early 1970s, when he got a job fresh out of De Anza High School at Bab’s Dairy next door.

About a decade later, he bought the adjacent lot, and has sold trees every Christmas since. Bab’s Dairy closed a few years ago.

Bab's Christmas Trees has been drawing customers to 23rd Street since 1981.

Bab's Christmas Trees has been drawing customers to 23rd Street since 1981.

The other 11 months of the year, Spencer leases his property out to a used car dealer.

Among the dozen or so customers browsing about was Cheryl Livingston. She said she was looking for a “nice size tree.”

“I just saw the sign and thought I’d look around,” she said.

The bustle of customers notwithstanding, Spencer said business has taken a hit the last few years.

“It’s the economy, sure,” he said. “And people are using artificial trees more now.”

But Spencer said the tree lot is still worthwhile.

“The city has a lot of challenges, but we’re natives of Richmond and we have a whole lot of repeat customers,” he said.

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