For a certain number of folks around here, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a tree from Minnesota Bob.
He's the kind, soft-spoken gentleman getting on in years who's set up in the Burlington Coat Factory parking lot, with an 18-foot, undulating Santa doing The Funky Monkey along Dimond Boulevard.
Bob Smith is his name, and he's been selling trees up here to many of the same families for years, and in some cases, generations. Since 1962.
About 100 area residents are so hooked on his trees, they don't bother picking their own anymore. Smith knows what they like. He hand-picks them from his Christmas tree farm in Mora, Minn., wraps them in bailing twine, puts their names on them and ships them up along with the rest of his inventory. These special-order customers drop by for their annual visits with Smith and his son, David, strap their trees atop their vehicles and off they go.
Long after most independent, roadside vendors around town have vaporized-- casualties of rising costs and competition from retail giants -- Smith is hanging in there. He returns year after year, as sure as those Santa hats everyone insists on wearing. Because he sells more than trees. He sells tradition.
"I know this is going to sound a little sappy but Bob is as much a part of our Christmas tradition as anything our family does," said loyalist Maureen Stearman of Wasilla.
The Stearmans, who are on a hug-basis with Smith, have been buying Christmas trees from him since the kids were little, about 20 years now. They have a standing order for a balsam fir, an 11-to-12 footer, that Smith picks out for them down on the farm.
But things are different this year. The Stearmans' daughter, Megan, just bought a house in Arkansas, so the family is having Christmas down south. When Maureen realized they weren't going to be around, she called Smith in Minnesota to stop him from shipping their tree up with the others.
He assumed they'd be skipping their tree this year.
Maureen is going to drive all the way from Arkansas to Minnesota to pick it up herself, combining it with a road trip to collect her son from college. She wants to see the farm. And she wants to meet Smith's wife, Audrey, who makes the wreaths, and get a look at their 5-year-old granddaughter, Abby, she's heard so much about.
Now 75, Smith has had thoughts of retirement dancing in his head for quite a while. But he doesn't see how he can do it. Bringing the Stearmans and others like them their trees has become a Christmas tradition for him, too.
He's been doing this for 48 years now. He'd like to at least make it an even 50.
Smith isn't sure when or how he went from Bob Smith to Minnesota Bob, especially since he grew up in Anchorage. At some point, customers just started writing checks that way. And when one of them mailed a Christmas card addressed: Minnesota Bob, Mora, Minn., and it found its way to him, he knew he'd never shake it.
Smith arrived in Anchorage in the first grade and graduated from high school here in 1952. He worked in town as an auto-parts guy, then a Caterpillar-parts guy, with a stint in the Army somewhere in the middle, before spending 10 years in Cantwell, where he and his wife, Audrey ran the general store and raised three boys.
When he started selling trees in 1962, he'd buy them from Minnesota growers. Anchorage was still pretty sleepy back then, and many of his customers were old classmates and others he knew around town.
In the mid-'70s, when he and his family moved to Audrey's hometown of Mora, a big part of him never left. He got into the septic business down there but made an annual journey back to Alaska to sell trees. He started his own 40-acre plantation in 1979 and went full-time as a tree farmer about 10 years later. He now has 210 acres of trees just outside of Mora, a two stop-light town about 70 miles north of Minneapolis.
Christmas tree farming involves a tremendous amount of labor, from keeping the trees well fed to pruning and shaping and cutting and hauling and loading and unloading, and loading and unloading some more. But he's his own boss, he can walk to work, and son David lives just across the field.
Early on, after tending these things from seedlings to tree-hood, harvest time didn't come easy.
"One of my first crops, I had about a 1,000 Scotch pines just south of my house, right out the picture window," he said. "When it came time to cut those, it was tough.
"I tell some people it gets so personal that I name them.
"But not really."
It's not hard to find Christmas trees in Anchorage, from the locally owned nurseries and feed stores that sell high-end, freshly cut trees, to the fake kind mostly made in China.
A man with a serious aversion to bragging, Smith will say this about his own: "You can buy a cheaper tree elsewhere, you know, like Wal-Mart and all that."
Enough people are willing to pay his prices that some years he sells out early.
John and Lois Goodman are special-order people who've been buying his trees forever.
"I mean, way back when our kids were little," Lois said. "Boy, longer than 30 years; maybe even 35."
The Goodmans would make an evening of it, taking the kids to dinner at La Mex or the Lucky Wishbone, then head to Smith's lot, on Northern Lights Boulevard back then.
Eventually, they put in a standing order for a Fraser fir, a tree Smith calls the Cadillac because of the blueish tinted underbelly of the needles. And they hold up so well, about five weeks.
"The quality of the trees he brings up here is phenomenal," John said. "I'm old-fashioned. If I find something I like, why change?"
Smith brings up seven varieties, from table toppers to 18 footers: balsam fir, canaan fir, fraser fir, scotch pine, white pine, Colorado spruce, white spruce. He used to bring up Norway pine too, but no longer.
"A ways back, I used to sell 400-500 Norway pine each year," he said. "Now I sell four as special orders. They went out of style."
Even he didn't know a tree could do that.
"That's the difficult part of it," he said. "You plant a tree, and it takes 8 to 10 years to grow, and then it's not fashionable anymore. So it's hard to guess the market."
Mike Koehler has been buying Smith's trees for about 20 years, and is one of those four Norway pine holdouts. He a retired truck driver with a standing order for one and really doesn't care whether he's committing a fashion faux pas or not. His grandfather ran a Civilian Conservation Corps crew during the Great Depression and planted Norway pines all over northern Wisconsin. And that's made him partial to this particular tree.
Like many who prefer real trees, Koehler likes the smell of a fresh one. And while cutting your own sounds romantic, up here it's mainly spruce, and to him, a spruce warmed up inside the house smells like used kitty litter.
And so Norway pine it is.
Regardless of whether Smith sells out early this year, he and his crew will be heading home to Minnesota for Christmas on Dec. 23, after being gone a month.
Audrey, who calls this time without the menfolk her "vacation," will have their own tree up and ready, as she does every year.
She makes a point of strolling through the farm and picking out her favorite reject, a Charlie Brown tree, she calls it. As a tree farmer who could have any one she wants, taking in an aesthetically challenged tree has become her own Christmas tradition.
Find Debra McKinney online at adn.com/contact/dmckinney or call 257-4465.