Sitting on a folding chair in the warm, makeshift office of a portable trailer at the Earl Warren Showgrounds on a sunny afternoon this week, Anthony Dal Bello furrowed his brows in thought. Did the 75-year-old founder of Anthony’s Christmas Trees & Wreaths feel like he had been in business through 60 holiday seasons?
He responded with a tired smile and a silent, resounding, “Yes.”
“Everybody thinks it’s a one- to two-month job,” said Dal Bello, a lifelong Santa Barbara resident who clocked into work at 6 a.m. that day and most likely wouldn’t be home until after 10 p.m.
In the middle of explaining how he happened upon the annual four-month commitment back in 1953, Dal Bello’s mind wandered.
Was it snowing in Oregon? Dal Bello picked up his flip cell phone to call a tree supplier in the state.
“What’s the weather looking like right now in Oregon?” he asked. “Did my truck leave? How many trees did you get on there?”
He paused to grab a pen and scratch paper.
“And that’s it? … OK, the well is dry.”
The last Christmas trees of the season would arrive Saturday or Sunday, Dal Bello said after hanging up, bringing the grand total to 10 truckloads of 5,000 trees of varying varieties and heights.
Dal Bello noted that the 2013 inventory was a far cry from his humble beginnings as a freshman at Santa Barbara’s former Catholic High School, helping a Milpas Street neighbor set up and sell trees from her home.
He sold trees from his own Milpas home the following year, and the operation grew out to Goleta and the Earl Warren Showgrounds before the three locations were consolidated.
Decorated wreaths, garland, wooden reindeer and snowmen and more joined the inventory list since then.
Dal Bello’s wife, Maria, also has been a staple of the festive, 60-year-old operation since the two married in 1970.
“And we still learn every year,” Dal Bello said, noting the trial and error involved in running the business. “We’re up against the box stores, but we’re full service.”
Anthony’s has a delivery and pickup service the larger retailers can’t match, he said, as well as a “personal shopper option” that allows customers to call and have trees set up without lifting another finger.
This week on the lot, a couple of customers likened Dal Bello to Santa Claus as they walked past the founder, who sported a silvery, white mustache and knitted cap in the shape of a Christmas tree. Throw in the generally jolly demeanor and the fact that Dal Bello is constantly double-checking a pre-order list, and they don’t seem far off.
“I love Christmas,” he said, admiring a noble fir, his favorite tree variety. “This is a beauty. I always look at the top.”
Dal Bello worked for years with the Santa Barbara County Housing Authority and in real estate, but always looked forward to the same four months of the year.
He proudly employs about 45 people each holiday season, all prepping for the final marathon that begins the day after Thanksgiving and ends on Christmas Eve.
The only thing that seemed to excite Dal Bello as much as Christmas was the thought of visiting his six grandchildren after the holiday marathon is over.
He said he’s grateful for his loyal customers, and hopes to stay in business for years to come.
“They come with a big smile,” he said of customers. “That’s what keeps me going.”