Local Color

New York Times Op-Ed, February 14, 2007.


IF a city is an ecosystem, the flower shop is perhaps its most vital and endangered habitat. In the last 15 years, the number of florists in the United States declined 17 percent. In 1992, there was a florist for every 9,300 Americans; now florists must serve, on average, more than 12,000 people each — if they serve them at all. Half of cut flower purchases are made at supermarkets now, and less than a third of American households buy flowers in a year. It’s no wonder that third-generation florists are closing their doors. But if flower shops go extinct, what have we lost?



The urban florist is a fairly recent invention. In 1864, this newspaper observed that ”a few years ago, the business of selling out flowers and bouquets was confined to one or two peripatetic vendors of cheap trash; now we mention it as evidence of growing taste.” The florists of Broadway, the account continued, filled their shop windows with ”a profusion of costly exotics.” Flowers were no longer a crop to be sold out of the back of a greenhouse or from a street cart; they had become horticultural jewels, and florists earned their place alongside the city’s other luxury shops.

Since then, flower shops have been green spots of nature in the city. They mark the change of the seasons, even in this age of global commerce when roses come from Ecuador and orchids from Thailand and peonies from New Zealand. Gnarled branches of cherry blossoms emerge in shop windows in March, followed by a show of lilac so short that it will make even the most harried city dweller’s heart ache for the brevity of spring.

Sunflowers spill onto the sidewalks in summer, attracting honeybees from hidden rooftop hives. And in the middle of a winter snowstorm, nothing is as gloriously alive as the inside of a flower shop, with its chrysanthemums and tulips as bright as flames.

Florists don’t just celebrate nature; they celebrate us as well. New York City alone sees 169 marriages a day, 340 births and 157 deaths. Florists understand what it is that we cannot quite bring ourselves to say at these moments; they wrap up a few dozen delicate, ephemeral blossoms and rush them across town to do the job for us.

A florist in Hattiesburg, Miss., who just closed his family’s shop after over a century in business, remembered that drunks would sometimes wake his father up in the middle of the night, demanding flowers so their wives would let them come home. Without a florist to finesse our clumsy emotional transactions, we might all be sleeping on the stoop.

But today florists are grappling with the same problems faced by other specialty stores. Supermarket chains, discount clubs and Internet retailers use their buying power to purchase directly from growers, selling bouquets at prices that can be lower than what mom-and-pop florists pay at wholesale. We’ve bought into the myth that flowers are too expensive, sacrificing the sensual delights and emotional comforts of the flower shop along the way.

In fact, it is surprising how affordable flowers really are: 120 years ago, the best roses sold in New York for $18 a dozen, and arrangements went for $40 or $50 — this at a time when hotel rooms rented for $5. Today a bouquet costs about the same as it did then, but $5 won’t cover cab fare to a hotel, much less a room for the night.

It’s puzzling to florists that their wares, those exquisite purple lilies and sweet heavenly freesias, must be sold at bargain-basement prices to get anyone’s attention. A dozen roses, a florist will remind you, still cost less — and last longer — than a dinner out, a night at the theater or a bottle of good Champagne.

This is the challenge facing florists: they must hold the attention of the distracted shopper rushing past on the street. They have to convince us to choose irises over iPods, magnolias over Manolos. This is especially critical every Feb. 14, when they hope to earn about a third of their annual revenue in one day.

I once sat in a florist’s workroom on Valentine’s Day, and I listened as desperate husbands and lovesick suitors called seeking the calm, good-natured help of a stranger who understood what was at stake. You can place your heart into the hands of a florist. Flower shops remind us who we are — fragile, transitory creatures, not nearly as tough as our suits and our briefcases make us look. They call our attention to the passing of spring, and to the fullness of love. Every city needs that.

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