From her West Philadelphia floral studio, Tolani Lawrence-Lightfoot has a unique window into love in the time of the coronavirus.
At Snapdragon Flowers in Cedar Park, she can see the community’s desire to connect — its longing to support and grieve with each other, and to celebrate together — in the number of orders she receives. Philadelphians have sent flowers more during the pandemic, she said, than in each of the previous five years.
Her Valentine’s Day week has been busier than usual, she said, but over the last 11 months, people have most often sent flowers for no reason except to say “I’m thinking of you” or “I hope this brightens your day.”
She gets the most insight into people’s hearts, she said, when she sits down and handwrites the messages from senders to recipients.
“It can be very sad,” Lawrence-Lightfoot said, “but most often, it reminds me how wonderful humans can be to each other.”
Across the region, others in the floral industry have made the same observation, saying that the pandemic has solidified their faith in the goodness of people. Not only have people kept these small businesses afloat, but they have deeply moved owners with floral displays of kindness, sympathy, affection, and humor — ”more humor than I’ve ever seen in my note-writing,” Lawrence-Lightfoot said.
Nationwide, most small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, but the flower industry is an exception. The industry has seen an increased demand for both flowers and plants since the pandemic began, said a spokesperson for the Society of American Florists. Some delivery services even reported record revenues, with steep increases in online sales, in the fourth quarter of 2020.
Shops have faced obstacles, too. Some farms were hit with virus outbreaks, and blooms have been limited. They’ve lost the revenue of large weddings, funerals, baby showers, and parties.
Places that relied on heavy foot traffic have had to adapt. In Center City’s Suburban Station, Philadelphia Flower Market now sees about five walk-in customers a day, compared with 30 to 50 pre-pandemic, said co-owner Danielle DeMott, 26. Other florists, such as Snapdragon, moved out of storefronts due to safety concerns, forcing themselves to promote more on social media.
After closing to the public in March, some shops never reopened.
But a sharp uptick in “just because” or “everyday” orders has saved many florists. Now more than ever, people are longing to safely connect with loved ones, to surprise friends who are struggling, and to make relatives smile amid a year of grief and pain. Many people have felt their mental health deteriorate due to isolation, racial trauma and unrest, economic hardship, and political division, and flowers have been proven to boost people’s moods, according to several psychological studies.
While a Sunday Valentine’s Day is typically bad news for the industry — with couples traveling or going out to dinner instead of sending flowers — some florists say this year is looking as if it will be different.
On Thursday, Domino Mack, 31, and her mother moved their floral design business, DNA Floral, from Brewerytown to South Philadelphia’s Bok building, just in time for customers to pick up pre-ordered Valentine’s Day bouquets, which were nearly sold out earlier this week. When DNA opened in the spring, Mack said she was “in shock” when the business took off immediately. It’s been booming ever since.
“I keep thanking God we’re able to thrive in a time like this,” Mack said.
‘I can’t wait for this to be over’
Flowers have marked the heaviest toll of the pandemic: lives lost to the virus, and to other ailments that had to be mourned in isolation and without a funeral.
In Runnemede, one regular customer at Cook’s Florist — whom owner Michael Boskey described as an 80-something “romantic” — has for decades been ordering his wife a gardenia for special occasions. His wife died this year, but this week, the man still ordered an arrangement of three floating gardenias to be sent to his home for Valentine’s Day.
In West Philadelphia, Snapdragon sometimes delivers multiple sympathy arrangements to the same address over several weeks, Lawrence-Lightfoot, 40, said.
At Stein’s, a 134-year-old mainstay with shops in Mayfair and Burlington City, owner Patrick Kelly said his team has done a lot of small funerals, including services in people’s homes, and crafted countless sympathy arrangements. The flower industry has always been an emotional one, he said, but the pandemic has intensified the shared experiences of loss.
“We stand at the counter with our customers with tears rolling down our face,” said Kelly, 61. “Anything you hear on the news that people are dealing with, people are sending flowers for those purposes.”
Sometimes, the loneliness and pain of people can be overwhelming, too. Florists across the region say they have written a lot of “Miss you” and “Sorry we can’t visit you” messages on bouquet cards.
Recently, Boskey, 50, said he’s seen people including another line: “I can’t wait for this to be over.”
People who live in nursing homes and assisted living facilities are particularly anxious, and their loved ones have sent flowers in place of hugs they can’t give, said Clare, 37, and Brendan Mulloy, 41, who own Matlack Florist in West Chester.
Much of their business over the last year has come from relatives of residents of several facilities near the store, the couple said.
In the spring, one customer created a pulley system to deliver an arrangement to his parent’s second-floor room, they said, and another woman has dropped off the same teacup once a month to be filled with flowers and delivered to her mother, whom she can’t visit. This weekend, Matlack will be donating bouquets of tulips to nursing homes — one for every dozen roses purchased for Valentine’s Day.
The holiday is looking to be busy enough, said the Mulloys, who bought the shop in September. But earlier this week they were hoping for some last-minute orders to boost business.
In Jamison, Bucks County, Liz Bininger, 60, who owns Mom’s Flower Shoppe, said she was “a little nervous,” crossing her fingers for a similar influx.
Without large weddings, her business has been down, she said, but like others, “just because” orders have buoyed it. She is optimistic, she said, about the shop moving to busy Peddler’s Village next month.
Other florists shared this sense of hope, a feeling they say mirrors the resilience they have witnessed in the community these last 11 months.
What are some of the biggest lessons they’ve learned?
“Philly is a city that cares about each other,” said Lawrence-Lightfoot, of Snapdragon.
“We’re so much more alike than everybody realizes,” said Kelly, of Stein’s. “Pain is pain. Sorrow is sorrow. Grief is grief.”
“People down deep are good,” said Boskey, of Cook’s. “They just miss their loved ones.”