Dozens of trees, some wrapped, some lying on their sides, some clamped down to be trimmed. They dot earlier empty lots around town. They are Christmas trees, and their wait is almost over.
This weekend and next will be the biggest days for Christmas tree lot operators. Hundreds of trees will go home on tops of cars, in the back of pickups or jammed into the back of little hybrids.
"Friday nights and weekends are our busiest times," said Leonard Gallagher of Merced. Gallagher and his partner, Mike Maloney, have run a Christmas tree lot on the corner of G and Alexander streets in Merced for the past two years.
The little lot plays Christmas music to get tree buyers in the mood, and hot cocoa and cookies so people can keep up their strength while browsing through the aromatic trees.
But what about competition from artificial trees? At Paul Johnson's tree lot on R and 19th streets in downtown Merced, Johnson isn't worried.
"The average life span of an artificial tree is about two years," Johnson said. "Then the people want the real thing back in their house. They miss the smell."
The "real thing" is actually a variety of trees. At Johnson's lot, the Noble fir is the most popular tree. He said the tree is more durable, lasts longer than other trees and boasts sturdy branches that can take heavy ornaments.
Noble firs are also the most expensive, with some trees costing up to $100. Add to that the cost of flocking, and a tree can end up lightening a buyer's wallet quite a bit. (Flocking is the application of a velvet-like pattern or decorative coating on a tree.)
And that flocking is quite popular. Johnson said that about 20 percent of the trees he sells are flocked, and one of the most popular types of flocking is called "first snow." The flocking is only on the tops of the branches, and it looks amazingly real.
But for the nontraditional Christmas-tree look, Johnson can make pink or purple flocked trees. And then there are the die-hard sports fans. "I've flocked trees in the Dallas Cowboys colors, the 49ers colors and the Raiders colors," Johnson said.
But if you don't have a big house, or a lot of room for a tree, or maybe an empty pocketbook around the holidays, don't despair. There's still a tree for you.
"A lot of people come in and ask for the 'Charlie Brown tree,'" Johnson said. Tabletop trees that stand only about three feet high are available at both lots, and prices start at only $12.95.
Both lots move their trees pretty quickly, each getting fresh deliveries directly from the grower a couple of times a week.
At Gallagher's lot, Noble firs are popular, but the Douglas fir runs a close second. "The Douglas is a lighter tree, and a bit cheaper," Gallagher said. "It depends on buyers' preferences. But I can tell you that looks is 90 percent of the sale."
Both lot owners will help customers load their trees, and for the buyer looking for the extra special tree, custom ordering can be done. "We've gotten 10 foot trees for people," Gallagher said.
Both Johnson and Gallagher enjoy watching families choose their special tree during the holidays.
"We had so much fun last year," Gallagher said. "Seeing the expressions on the kids' faces, they just get so excited."
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at 209-385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.