As inevitable as Thanksgiving and Christmas, Al Preble showed up with the same rickety chair in the same vacant lot, wearing the same Oshkosh overalls and fisherman's cap, the same old ear-to-ear grin.
He held court every day between the two holidays, selling untold hundreds of Christmas trees and evergreen boughs and bantering alike with customers of five minutes and 50 years' standing.
"Nobody's cheaper than Christmas tree people," he growled at a well-dressed couple who drove up in a Mercedes on Dec. 24 and asked for "just a little tree, and we want a special deal."
"We gotta saw, we'll take care of you," Preble said. He hailed a worker, pointed to a tree and said, "Cut off the top for a little tree, and then sell the bottom greens back to 'em."
Delighted with his joke, Preble scanned his lot for the next customer, and the next. They poured in all Christmas Eve, just as they had all month and just as he knew they would.
Then Preble packed up and left, vowing to return every holiday season "as long as I got air in my lungs."
To some longtime Pasadenans the name Preble is a pleasant reminder of a pre-supermarket era when it seemed that everyone in town went to his pungent, airy store on Green Street to buy fresh produce.
Then as now, the ever-present Preble wore a grin, overalls and fisherman's cap and greeted everyone. During the 1960s and '70s he built a chain of five stores in the Pasadena area, then sold or closed them all and moved to the desert about three years ago.
"I was going to retire but I couldn't take it," he said with a shudder, explaining his reappearance every holiday season.
Albert Preble's age--81--and the year he arrived in Pasadena--1931--are the only figures he is definite about. He says he can't remember just when he opened his first store or when he closed the last one, how many years he has had Christmas tree lots, how many pieces of Pasadena property he has owned, how long he has lived in the desert--or even where in the desert.
"Somewhere around Twentynine Palms, I guess you'd say. I built a couple of houses down there. Five, I think," he said.
A native of the Bonne Bay area of Newfoundland, Preble moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then to Boston, where at the age of 17 he peddled produce on the streets. He said he worked on a merchant ship for $40 a month, sailed through the Panama Canal, jumped ship in Seattle, and kept moving until he landed in Pasadena.
"I guess I was 25 or so--around there," he said.
Again he peddled produce and soon opened his first store.
"You had to be adventurous," Preble said. "Everyone had to be in those days. You're through living if you're satisfied at 25."
He bought and sold property, and besides produce he tried selling merchandise ranging from antiques to fresh fish. He and his wife, Rose Marie, have two children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Preble said he sold his Green Street store "about 10, maybe 15, years ago," and through the years opened and closed others, including the last one, on Glenarm Street, which was razed to make way for a new office building. When that happened, Preble advertised in local papers asking help in finding a new site but said he never found one that was affordable.
So he has contented himself with renting a lot at Glenarm and Raymond Avenue, where he sells Christmas greenery, and where customers of long ago return to him.
"All these old friends," he said, "they give me so much booze I could be drunk for the rest of my life."