This Christmas, there will be no poinsettias, no wreaths, no bouquets or centerpieces flying out the door of a family flower shop a block from where I live, in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia. Its doors shut two weeks ago.
It's the economy, right? Well, not entirely. There's much more behind the disappearance of the neighborhood florist.
Christmas was once a rainmaking holiday for family florists. I know: My pop was a Philly florist for 50 years, first in a tiny neighborhood called Paradise, and then in Roxborough. Starting when I was 15, I worked side by side with him every Christmas season, worn workbench to worn workbench.
We made Christmas wreaths, those Douglas fir branches festooned with big pinecones and clusters of bright red berries. A door in Paradise without one of my pop's Douglas firs hanging on it was like a church without a stained-glass window.
We wrapped hundreds of poinsettias, the Christmas flower, in shiny green and red paper with bows of white ribbon, and delivered them to faces that lit up. We arranged bouquets and centerpieces with white chrysanthemums and red roses, which would sit majestically on living-room mantles and dining-room tables.
My pop, wise in so many ways, predicted a struggle for neighborhood flower shops back in the early '70s. That was when street-corner hucksters began popping up everywhere like mushrooms around each flower-oriented holiday - Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter, Mother's Day - and the monolithic supermarket industry devoted large chunks of store space to cheaper, inferior flowers.
My father was right. The number of florists in the city dropped from 578 in 1997 to only 303 in 2002, according to the most recent census figures. Industry figures show supermarket flowers outsell florists' by more than 2-1. Consumers patronize drugstores, wholesale clubs and Internet services, such as the giant Teleflora, for deals or convenience. In the last 15 years, six flower shops have closed in Roxborough alone.
My pop died before his shop was shuttered. He died with his boots on, so to speak, working in his tiny shop through cancer and heart failure, right to the end. You see, he was in love with his business; with his neighborhood; with his customers, working stiffs like him; and with the mysterious power that flowers have to deliver peace and happiness to the soul and psyche. My brother took over our father's shop after he died, but not long after that it was gone - one of those six Roxborough florists I mentioned.
It broke my heart when that happened, because the memories of my pop's shop are still so sharp that they feel physical. I loved working with my father, particularly at Christmastime. One of the virtues of sons and daughters working in the family business is the bonding.
Sons are often defined by their fathers. I still find mine showing me the way with his virtues and his wisdom.
I remember that he often gave poinsettias or centerpieces to families who had fallen on hard times. He unfailingly refused to send anything that was not perfect, because quality was not going to be sacrificed for expediency or profit. He would work 20-hour days around Christmas, often through runny noses, painful varicose veins, and heart troubles.
I know I will visit some family flower shop this Christmas, buy a poinsettia, and deliver it to a person I have delivered a poinsettia to every Christmas for the last 40 years: My wife.
My pop taught me well in that family flower shop.