An old hand at Christmas tree sales
At 82, tree seller Paul Sexton isn’t ready for the chop just yet
Paul Sexton, selling Christmas trees in Foxrock, Co Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Paul Sexton,who is 82 years of age and probably Ireland’s oldest Christmas tree salesman, plugs in the guard dog. “Woof, woof!” says the guard dog, which is actually an electronic speaker designed to fool burglars.
Made in China, it is activated by a sensor and there’s a picture of a German shepherd on the box. Sexton sells them alongside Christmas trees from a shed by a row of retail units he owns in Cornelscourt.
“Ah he’s great!” says Sexton with admiration, as the electronic dog barks away. “If you’re going out shopping or anything, you can switch on your dog.”
You need good security in the Christmas tree business, a business Sexton has been in for more than 60 years. “We once sold them for five shillings,” he says, referring to the trees. “Now they sell for €50.”
Sexton started selling things in his teens. “There was no pocket money in those days in Co Clare. So we used to grow fruit and veg and sell them to hotels.” While developing this into a wholesale business he also found that there was a market for Christmas trees. “It was an underdeveloped market,” he says, “so we developed it.”
At that time Irish Christmas trees were generally “old tops of trees”. They were fine, he says, but they were “a bit raggedy looking”.
“Now there are Christmas tree farms around the country and they grow trees and export them as well. We pick our trees very carefully – 20 or 30 years ago we had to import them from Denmark because we couldn’t get enough good quality trees here to keep our customers happy.”
Sexton grows them himself, although his current crop is a few years off being ready. “The trick is to keep pruning them so that they keep their shape,” he says. “Otherwise they grow all wild and shapeless.”
Fashions have changed. Twenty years ago most trees sold in Ireland were longer, narrower Norway spruce, but in recent years people have preferred the wider, non-shedding Norse fir variety. Plastic trees have also had an impact on business. “But usually after a few years people get tired of the plastic and go back to real trees again,” he says.
A free one
He has a lot of loyal customers. “I get people who come and say, ‘I used to buy trees off you with my grandad.’ A woman came in the other day and said ‘I’ve bought 40 trees over the years it’s about time you gave me a free one!’ I said, ‘When the recession is over I’ll give you a free one.’”
He says whole families come to choose their trees and he’s lost count of the wives and husbands he’s seen fighting over their selection. “We get phone calls: ‘The wife brought home a tree and its rubbish!’ or vice-versa. We just say, bring it back in. We’ve thousands – you can exchange it at no cost for whatever one you want. I think we’ve saved a lot of marriages. We see people spending ages looking and then buy the worst one. We don’t interfere.”
It’s not just the hoi polloi he sells to. He supplies hotels and the American and British embassies. “We’ve even supplied Bono. But Bono must have gone plastic too because we haven’t seen him in the last few years. Or maybe he’s having money trouble, the poor fellow.”
His interest in security makes sense when you hear his stories. Last year he confronted a burglar and ended up represented as a “have a go hero”.
Christmas tree merchants are a target at this time of year. “It takes a few minutes to load a van with trees and then you can set yourself up on a street corner and make thousands,” he says. He’s keeping this year’s trees in a “secret location” rather than on his own land. One year he flew to Denmark and handpicked a thousand trees “£10 and VAT and transport costs” and all thousand were stolen in a raid.
More frighteningly, a few years later, his family was held at gun point. “We used to live in that house there,” he says, pointing to it, “and we were raided by armed men who were off their heads on something.” The attack had a devastating effect on the family and Sexton’s demeanour changes when talking about it. The family subsequently appeared on the Late Late Show and established a victim support group called People United Against Crime.
But this is in the past and Sexton is a cheerful man. “I’ve great fun with people here,” he says. “They say ‘Are you still around?’ ‘Just about!’ I tell them. They ask ‘What’s happening?’ I say ‘I’m getting old. I’m getting feeble and I’m getting a bit doddery.’
They agree with me that I’m getting old and feeble but they tell me I’m not going doddery yet.” He laughs. “Well, I’m still here anyway,” he says. In the distance a real dog barks.