Jeff Allen grins broadly as he remembers the day 20 years ago when he started selling pumpkins and Christmas trees on a dirt lot here in Flagstaff.
An elderly woman scoffed when she was told that the large pumpkin she was holding would cost $10. Today, some of those orange-colored gourds on his lots cost up to $25.
"But there are plenty that still cost $10," Allen said.
Allen earned a reputation in Flagstaff as the "pumpkin king" over the last two decades.
"We used to have six lots all over town." Allen said. "We used to sell a lot more pumpkins, but that was before the grocery stores really got into it."
He said urban infill, not competition, is the main reason he has just two lots for his pumpkins this year.
"Thank god there are people who will let me use their property," he said.
In a sign of the times, Allen notes he got a discount this year on the lot he rents across the street from Flagstaff City Hall.
Looking over his shoulder at a large dirt lot behind his Butler Avenue location, Allen said he wishes he could grow the pumpkins locally.
"That's a thought if we could get them to grow," he said. "I don't like the pumpkins from Arizona, they have thin walls — they don't last."
Instead, the pumpkins are brought down by the truckload from Utah, where Allen has been buying them from a friend for the last 15 years.
"This is the next best thing to a pumpkin patch because we can't grow them here," Allen said.
The tiny lots from which he sells the pumpkins still draw customers from all over the West.
"I got people from California, I got people from Yuma, Scottsdale and New Mexico that come every year," he said. "I am doing something right."
Allen said the Utah-grown pumpkins have also traveled across the globe after leaving his lot, bought by curious tourists.
"I've got pumpkins that have gone to Germany and France," Allen said proudly.
But there is a downside to the seasonal business: leftovers. The price of a pumpkin varies between $1 to $25, but there are no buyers for them on November 1.
Allen tries to be optimistic when talking about pumpkins for which he can't find a home.
"Pumpkins you can eat," he said smiling.
He said he also donates pumpkins to local charities and schools every year.
WOOD CHIPS FROM TREES
But the Christmas trees are a bit of a different story.
Asked what happens to leftover Christmas trees, Allen looks down at his feet. He points out the tiny wood chips covering the dirt lot, remnants of the trees that never left the lot last year.
He said there are bigger risks with his Christmas tree business, but sometimes the market is good for both him and his customers.
Last year, Allen got a deal on Christmas trees from his supplier in Oregon. Officials had been cutting down trees for new roads, so the prices were exceptionally good.
Allen said his first concern was for his customers, many of whom he knew were struggling in the difficult economy.
"The economy was tough last year," he said. "So I sold those trees for $36, I used to get $50 to $70."
For Allen, the day-to-day interaction with his customers is the reason why he puts up the lots every year.
"I enjoy the people because I got a lot of friends one day a year, sometimes two days a year," Allen said. "I get kisses and hugs, I get to talk to people for 30 minutes. You can't beat that."
Joe Ferguson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 556-2253.