Brooklyn Boro

Rule-breaking Christmas tree vendor alarms businesses in Brooklyn Heights

"They’re using my name," says the Key Food owner. "Who are these people?"

December 1, 2022 Mary Frost
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Everybody likes Christmas trees, right?

In Brooklyn, the answer is usually yes — unless the Christmas tree vendor is squatting illegally on someone’s property and (allegedly) using a tax permit belonging to another business, among other violations.

This is the case on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, where a Canadian tree vendor has taken up the entire sidewalk in front of 121-125 Montague St., the site of the now-shuttered Ann Taylor Loft.

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Christmas tree peddlers, usually a cheerful and welcome presence, are allowed to sell in New York City during the month of December if they follow a few rules. But this peddler is breaking all of the rules, local shopkeepers say.

The owner of a nearby Key Food told the Brooklyn Eagle that he was outraged that the Christmas tree vendor was using his store’s name on its state tax certificate. By Sunday, the vendor had taped a piece of paper over the name of Key Food, but left the document hanging on its hut.
Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

Bogus tax certificate

“They are using my name and address!” Ivan Arguello, co-owner of Key Food (with Enrico Palazio) at 102 Montague St. told the Brooklyn Eagle.

The tree vendor’s wooden hut displays a “Temporary Certificate of Authority” from the NYS Department of Taxation and Finance, issued to Key Food and dated 2020.

“Who are these people?” Arguello demanded. “They put my name at risk. God forbid something happens. They have a gas generator.”

Arguello said he complained to the Montague Street BID, and the BID complained to the 84th Precinct. He also put in a complaint to 311. He said he was told,“No one can do anything.”

“They took a permit under my name, and nobody can do anything? It’s not right. Something is wrong with the system,” Arguello said.

A worker at the Christmas tree stand said that after complaints, her boss had applied for a new state tax certificate. Using another company’s certificate is illegal, with fines ranging up to $10,000.
Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

According to the State Department of Taxation and Finance, a sales tax Certificate of Authority cannot be transferred to another business. “If you are buying an existing business, or taking over the ownership of a family business, you must apply for your own Certificate of Authority,” the state warns on its website. Fines can range up to $10,000.

The Christmas tree vendor displays a sign saying “Sales tax is collected on all sales,” despite the tax certificate being in another business’ name.

By Sunday, the vendor had taped a piece of paper over the name of Key Food on the certificate, but otherwise left it hanging.

When asked about the certificate, one of the women operating the stand told the Eagle, “We’re waiting for a new one.”

When asked why the peddler was using a certificate issued to Key Food, she said, “This company used to be at Key Food.”

“The police didn’t ask us to leave,” she added. “They spoke with our boss. The BID told us to leave, then they spoke with the police and the police came and we spoke with the police, and our boss spoke with the police. The police came and they didn’t tell us to leave.”

Workers for the Christmas tree vendor sleep in this white truck with Canadian plates, parked around the clock on Montague Street. Inside the truck are wall hangings, a bed, shelves and a cooking stove.
Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

‘They laughed in my face’

Estela Johanneson, owner of James Weir Florist down the block from the illegal stand, told the Eagle that she politely asked the tree peddler to not sell wreaths, which are her biggest sales item during the month before Christmas.

“I have nothing against anyone selling Christmas trees,” she said. “Just not my number one item, which they are not authorized to sell anyway.”

“They laughed in my face,” Johanneson said.

BID: Montague is a ‘restricted street’

Montague Street is one of the few “restricted streets” in Brooklyn, Kate Chura, president of the Montague Street BID, told the Eagle.

According to NYC code §19-136, peddlers are allowed sell and display Christmas trees on city sidewalks during the month of December, as long as they receive permission from the site owners and follow a few other requirements.

There are several rare exceptions to this rule, however. Montague Street is one of a handful of city streets which does not allow peddlers, including Christmas tree vendors. (The other restricted streets in Brooklyn include Mermaid Avenue between West 17th and West 37th streets, and Avenue U between Coney Island Avenue and Stuart Street.)

“I have spoken to the building owners, and the 84th Precinct,” Chura said. “Detective Condon, our NCO [Neighborhood Coordination Officer], visited the site [last] Wednesday and asked the vendor at 121-125 to leave. The Key Food owner has spoken to the vendor, and he and I spoke to Detective Condon. I also alerted Councilmember Lincoln Restler. So we have approached from all sides and will continue.”

The Brooklyn Eagle reached out several times to the 84th Precinct, but did not receive a response by press time.

This Christmas tree stand has plenty of room in front of 121-125 Montague St. But a spokesperson for the building’s management company told the Eagle that they did not give the vendor permission to set up shop there.
Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

No permission from the owner

In another break with the law, the vendor did not get permission to set up on the site from Midwood Management, the property manager of 121-125 Montague St.

“We were not contacted by this vendor, but are aware of the situation,” a spokesperson for Midwood told the Brooklyn Eagle via email. “The local precinct has informed us they are working on addressing the issue.”

Councilmember Restler told the Eagle that he has engaged with the Police Department’s vending unit and, in light of the allegedly illegitimate tax certificate, would be bringing the complaint to the NYC Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP).

“It’s a good thing to have access to Christmas trees, but we are concerned because the vendor is selling some of the same items that a beloved local storefront is selling,” Restler said.

On Monday, Key Food’s Arguello reminisced fondly about the days when the neighborhood’s favorite Vermont tree farmer, Patti Romp sold trees on Montague Street with her son Tim every December. Patti’s husband Billy sold trees on Jane Street in Manhattan, and wrote a book, Christmas on Jane Street, about it.

“Sadly, Patti died of cancer,” Arguello said. “But Billy is still in Manhattan.”

Want to find out what happened to the illegal Christmas tree vendor after the Eagle published this article? Click here.

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