At 84, Robert Cooper is as straight and sturdy as the Douglas firs and Scotch pines he sells every Christmas season from his corner lot at Robinson Road and Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst.
After 55 years in the business, perhaps it is not surprising that Cooper would come to embody these hardy evergreens. Even on the coldest days, the sinewy octogenarian prefers working without gloves. Barehanded, Cooper says, it is easier to handle the cutting and bundling of trees that, by the way, he also grows himself on his family's farm near Angelica.
It's not easy work, he'll tell you.
"You get these smart alecks that come in here [and say]: 'Well, I suppose you go to Florida for the rest of the year,' " Cooper said with mock agitation.
"A tree gets handled 13 times before it's up to the customer's car. This is a lot of hard work. This isn't for people who want to sit back and take it easy."
Two generations of the Cooper clan back him up, figuratively and literally. Typically, Robert Cooper is assisted on the lot by his son and daughter-in-law, Jonathan and Peggy Sue, who live in a garage apartment on the tree lot next to Robert Cooper and his wife, Elvera.
Also helping out are Cooper's grandchildren, Jonathan Jr., 22, and Amanda, 12, as well as an assortment of cousins, nephews and longtime friends.
Robert Cooper recalls that he decided to get into the business in 1950, after reading a newspaper article about growing and selling evergreens and thinking he could make a decent profit from the venture.
"In the 1950s, trees were selling wholesale . . . for 75 cents a piece," Robert Cooper said. "The state had so many people putting these trees in, and they thought they were going to get rich and that, and they didn't think about the work. People think there's not any work to this. If you grow and sell trees, it's a nine-months-a-year job."
His daughter-in-law, Peggy Sue Cooper, said many who enter the business expecting to turn an easy profit usually wind up dropping out after a couple of years.
"The only time we're off is right after Christmas, up to the time we start planting, which is maybe three months [off], because when the ground starts breaking, we start planting," she said.
Robert Cooper has a wide breadth of knowledge about the trees he sells, from Scotch pines to white spruces and Fraser firs, which he recommends for their endurance as cut trees. Fraser firs are not heavy needle-droppers.
The Coopers can grow up to 1,700 trees an acre on their three-acre farm. The time it takes for the trees to reach maturity depends on the variety and how tall of a tree the customers prefer. Most of the cut trees that sell are about 6 feet, but sometimes they're bigger.
Granddaughter Amanda, a self-described "farm chick," helps to plant the tree seedlings in the spring, as well as making wreaths, which she and her mom sell on the lot. They sell trees right up to Christmas Eve.
As the third generation in the Christmas tree-selling business, Amanda can, without hesitation, give a quick rundown of what happens after a customer selects a tree.
"We'll bring it back here," she said, pointing to the family's back yard, "and we'll bale it for them. We'll make a fresh cut on it, if you want it, and put it in your car.
"We don't deliver," she adds.