Dannie Kelly is a real-life Santa Claus of the city.
A Christmas tree seller in the heart of Dorchester’s Four Corners neighborhood, Kelly runs a tree lot that is a shining offering in an area without a lot of other holiday decorations. The property has big trees leaned against a brick wall, a 7-foot candy cane in lights and a large, jovial man at the center of it all, hawking trees and spreading good cheer.
Kelly, an ordained Christian minister, lives in Mattapan, and has been selling Christmas trees in Boston for three decades. Buy a tree from Kelly, and you're in for more than an evergreen. It’s an experience that makes some customers giddy.
The 62-year-old says his vocational pursuit has roots in his early years growing up in the South.
“When I was a child, my mom would say, ‘Go get a tree.’ We'd go to the open air market. There was no person of color,” he recalls. “So I said, 'If they can put that in their community, why do we have to walk out of our community?' It stuck in my mind.”
Years later in Boston, Kelly got his start selling trees on a vacant lot on Columbus Avenue. For 28 Christmas seasons, he peddled his wares there.
But Roxbury Community College (RCC) eventually bought the lot, and four years ago, Kelly says school officials told him his yuletide business needed to go elsewhere.
Some community members were dismayed by the decision, including Mel King, a civil rights activist working in the the South End who was influential in the formation of RCC.
King, who still buys his Christmas trees from Kelly, says the college should allow Kelly to return to his old spot.
"If the space is available, what's the problem?" says King.
A spokesperson for the college declined to comment.
Now, Kelly works out of a small lot in the Four Corners neighborhood — but the operation is a fraction of the size it was in Roxbury. He estimates that he has gone from selling more than 1,000 trees each year to around 300.
Health complications, he adds, have also left him unable to do some of the heavy lifting.
“I’m an old man,” Kelly says, working a saw across a tree trunk before calling for one of his helpers to bring a chainsaw.
Since his early days selling trees, Kelly has run what he calls a mentoring program, offering work to high school students and others who might need a fresh start.
“We try to hire at least one or two people that have come out of incarceration," he says, "and we follow them until they get a job.”
Kelly requires his school-age workers to get a 'C' or better in their classes, and holds them to rules that make sense coming from a man trying to offer gentle previews of the working world.
"There's a dress code," he says. "If you go to Wall Street you have to wear a shirt and a tie. If you come out here in the snow, you have to wear long johns."
Though business may be smaller, Kelly's Community Christmas Trees has become a holiday mainstay in Dorchester.
For Noah De Amor, who owns a small bike shop nearby, it’s important that people can buy things in their own neighborhood — from someone who looks like them.
"I love the fact that there's a black man selling Christmas trees right in the community," he says.
As neighbors, he and Kelly even share common struggles as the little guys in retail.
“It's funny because our largest competitor is actually Target, which is located in the same shopping complex as Home Depot, which is Dannie’s largest competitor,” he says, urging shoppers to spend their money at locally owned businesses.
Doug Hundley, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, says buying real Christmas trees anywhere is a way to support local agriculture. But he says it's hard for big-box stores to match the level of service provided by sellers like Kelly.
“[They are] putting tree stands and loading them on people's vehicles and putting them in their trunks and telling them how to take care of them,” he says. “Now, I know that the box stores want their employees to do more of that, but I'm not sure that they can compete with the personal touch of someone like Dannie there.”
Business seems to be buzzing, but between competition and his less-trafficked location, it isn’t what it used to be for Dannie Kelly.
But even if he’s operating at a loss, Kelly says he’ll stay in business as long as he can for the sake of the community — and Christmas.
WBUR and the Dorchester Reporter have a partnership in which the news organizations share resources to collaborate on stories. WBUR’s Simón Rios is currently working from the Dorchester Reporter newsroom.
This segment aired on December 20, 2018.
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