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Hunt begins for perfect presence

The ideal Christmas tree, a veteran seller says, is locally sourced, gracefully shaped – and plastic-free

Each year after Thanksgiving, Mike Tuel sets up a temporary forest in the asphalt parking lot at Runge Furniture Store in Coeur d’Alene.

Wooden scaffolds hold dozens of dark green firs. The trees give off a spicy smell, crisply redolent of snow and resin, while Tuel extols the merits of locally grown, fresh-cut evergreens.

Sure, you can buy an artificial tree already strung with lights.

“But the damn tree comes from China,” growled Tuel, a 30-year purveyor of Christmas trees, who will spend the next four weeks in a camper on the lot, hawking trees. “Do you really want to celebrate Christmas with a plastic tree?”

Tuel’s devoted buyers don’t. About 85 percent of his clientele are repeat customers. Some families have been with him for so long that Tuel now sells trees to the grandchildren of his original customers. “I’m a legend in my own mind,” Tuel said.

Trees tied to the tops of minivans or sprouting from the backs of pickups are a common sight this time of year. U.S. consumers purchased about 28 million fresh-cut Christmas trees in 2008 and 11.7 million artificial trees, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Though sales were down in both categories as a result of the recession, overall sales of real trees held up better than plastic imports, according to the association.

Vicki Hedlund is one of Tuel’s faithful customers. “I like his trees because they’re natural looking,” said the St. Maries woman, as she studied a subalpine fir with widely spaced branches. “We kind of like that Scandinavian look … Some of the tree-farm trees are too bushy to hang ornaments on.”

Tuel gets a commercial permit to harvest grand fir and subalpine fir from the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. The subalpine fir’s graceful, cone-shaped silhouette makes the tree Tuel’s personal favorite and one of the lot’s most popular trees. Because subalpine fir trees grow at elevations above 5,000 feet, he cuts them in early November, before the snow gets deep. “I’ll look at thousands of trees, and maybe cut 10,” he said.

Tuel also harvests Frasier firs and other trees from a lot in Montana. He expects to sell about 350 trees this year, priced from $15 to $115. Sales typically peak during the first weekend in December, when he calls on three assistants to help him.

Hedlund and her friend, Marlena Giles, each left with a tree – Hedlund with a $28 subalpine fir, and Giles with a $35 grand fir that towered over 10 feet. Tuel tied the two trees to the top of Giles’ Kia Sportage. “Try to keep it under 80 mph on the way home,” he teased the women.

Farther north, George Poteet Jr. was selling noble firs from a lot on Government Way. At 5:30 on Thanksgiving morning, he and his sister, Mary Jo Poteet, unloaded 500 trees that arrived by truck from a Corvallis, Ore., tree farm. Noble firs have fuller branches than the tree varieties grown locally, George Poteet said.

“I think they have a classic look about them. It’s more the iconic image of a Christmas tree,” said Poteet, referring to noble firs’ statuesque shape.

Poteet is a graduate student at Washington State University who teaches Sociology 101 during the week. On weekends, he drives to Coeur d’Alene to help with the tree lot. Once school is out for Christmas break, he’ll be there full time. “It’s my sister’s business, but my schedule allows me to help out,” he said.

Tuel, meanwhile, said the Christmas tree sales are primarily a hobby business for him. “My wife wants me to quit,” he said. But Tuel isn’t ready to hang up his chain saw. Customers’ excitement over picking out a tree keeps the business meaningful, he said.

“One year a young fella, 13 years old, wanted to buy a tree for his family. He showed up with a sock full of 50-cent and 25-cent pieces. It was about $13 worth of change,” Tuel said.

Tuel let the boy have his pick of the lot.