“The smell of the Sunset Grill, the sound of the streetcar.”
Pete Conroy and Steve Watson, better known to many in the Beach as two of the four men behind the Beaches Lions Christmas Tree Lot at Kew Gardens, are getting nostalgic touching upon the seasons of memories they’ve amassed over the last 25 years. The tree lot began in 1992 on a porch with four friends looking for a way to stay connected and raise money for the community – it’s now a central part of the Beach holiday season, and the Beaches Lions largest fundraiser.
Snowball fights, celebrity sightings, wedding proposals – speaking with Conroy and Watson for a short while on a sunny Saturday afternoon, it seems they are the type of gregarious guys who would have stories to tell no matter the year or occasion. They are the type of guys who, at 18, would say “Hey, why don’t we start selling real Christmas trees?”
But this year, there’s a real reason to reflect on their time at Kew Gardens – 2015 was the crew’s last at the Queen East spot. This year, the group moves to the park at Woodbine Beach, east of the parking lot off of Lakeshore Boulevard. The lot opens November 25.
The move comes as a result of the recent changes to Kew Gardens, explained Watson, speaking on behalf of the group, which also includes David Godsoe and Derek Miller, noting that the city does not want any extra-ordinary wear and tear on the new landscaping and the space has been modified so that it is no longer suitable for the tree lot.
Staying in Kew was not presented as an option for the tree lot, he said.
“The only location presented as an option was Woodbine Beach, and we have agreed to give it a try,” he said.
City councillors, city staff, and Boardwalk Place, which has agreed to let them use their power supply, have been helpful at accommodating the tree lot’s needs at the new location, they said. They are trying to see the positives in the new location: free on-site parking, an easier loading and unloading space, and the opportunity to build new memories and maybe even one day expand, but it is hard for the group to say goodbye to Kew and Queen Street East.
“After more than 25 years in Kew Gardens, the thought of having to rebuild in a new location is a challenge in itself,” said Watson. “We’ve had to ask ourselves, and our families, if we still have the energy that we had all those years ago and can devote the time to try and rebuild in a new area? While the new location does have the benefit of ample free parking, we will lose that Queen Street sidewalk traffic and the more direct contact with the community.”
From a business standpoint, they have ordered less trees than they normally would to make sure that they don’t get stuck with too much product on account of the move.
“Most people in the industry have agreed that moving locations will likely cost you 20 to 25 per cent of your customer base,” he said. “It will take a number of years to build this back.”
But they are determined to build it back – and build upon the memories and traditions which began at Kew.
“Without a doubt Kew Gardens will always be a special place for us. We have all grown up in and around the Beach, and Kew was always at the heart of it all,” he said.
The group specializes in premium, quality trees – and was one of the first to do so, they say, so they have a loyal customer base. A significant portion of the business is through home delivery, which should take some of the edge off and benefit from the parking situation at Woodbine Beach – perhaps the silver lining.
“It will be nice for us and for our customers not to have to fend off the relentless Queen Street East parking ticket officers,” he said.
Nevertheless, reflecting on the last 25 years brought up special memories for the lot.
“We all found special moments to cherish spending the month leading up to Christmas every year, watching the last leaves fall and listening to the flag near the Cenotaph flap in the crisp breeze, waiting for those first snowflakes to appear,” said Watson.
“And on delivery day in late November, with a hardy crew unloading all of the trees we would always hear the excitement from the children as they passed by on the way to the play area, asking their parents when they could come for a candy cane and to pick out their tree.”
They always felt embraced by the community.
“People walking along Queen Street would tell us how much they loved the smell of the trees coming from the park. We often heard, ‘We know Christmas is around the corner when the boys arrive in the park.’ We have two-and-a-half decades of memories we share with all the people that have worked with us over the years, and also with many of the business operators that have come and gone. We are committed to doing our best to create new memories at Woodbine Beach, but it won’t be the same.”
The tree lot at Kew Gardens attracted many characters over the years. Here, the group reflects on some of those people.
“During one setup weekend, probably 15 years ago, we were short staffed and struggling through a difficult day with multiple trucks to unload. A gentlemen wandered down from the sidewalk asking if we needed help. He was obviously more than a few years our senior and turned out to have stories from a lifetime of commercial fishing off the Newfoundland coast. This gentleman worked tirelessly for several days, showing us all up. He had mentioned he was working for money for a hostel and food and to help him figure out his next stop in life. He never said good-bye, just didn’t come back one day, but we all remember the older gentleman that made a difference and showed us all up in the process.”
“Then there was the year Mike, local Beach legend, came back from one of his cross-Canada walks (that’s right, he walked from Toronto to Vancouver, or was it Halifax? I believe he did both…) and spent the season sharing his amazing stories.”
“Tagziev joined us one year, an elite level wrestler who went on to compete for Canada. He seemed to have the strength of three of us, moving the largest of trees like they were a 3’ table-top.”
“Hunter should have won a ‘best spirit’ award with tales of his cross Atlantic sailing voyage. His unwavering positive outlook brightened all of our spirits on the coldest, wettest days.”
“I should also mention that a younger Ryan O’Reilly, on his way to the NHL stardom he enjoys today, was also part of the crew many years ago.”
Do you have a special memory from the Beaches Lions tree lot at Kew Gardens? What do you think about the move to Woodbine Beach? Leave a comment or email firstname.lastname@example.org.