Petal pushers

Once Valentine's Day passed, things got slow again at the flower shop.

Life here is marked by flower-driven holidays, and between those busy dates, it gets real quiet. There's no radio on, not much traffic is heard passing down the street, and people don't often walk past the front windows anymore.  

Roy Szymanski has come to rationalize away the lulls. "You can't be busy every day," the 66-year-old says. He has worked at St. Hedwig Flower and Gift Shop in southwest Detroit for more than 40 years. "You never know what comes in between — a funeral happens or somebody you know passes away, then naturally you're going to get to work on that day."

This time, the big event is the installation of officers at the local Knights of Columbus hall, a celebration that calls for floral arrangements. "There's a centerpiece and table pieces and corsages for the ladies," Roy notes enthusiastically. He and owner Gus Turza, 75, will be putting them together on Sunday. It's normally their day off, but at a little shop like this in the city, you never turn down business nowadays.

St. Hedwig's on Junction takes its name from the cross street it's on, which takes its name from the old Polish church that towers next door. Flowers have been sold from this building for more than 80 years. The motto here is "Flowers are Always Nice."

It's a small, charming place. The air is saturated with the scent of the rose blooms that poke out of buckets in the cooler. Floating balloons and stuffed bears light up the store with bright reds and yellows, and the pink walls lend the room a gentle air. An ancient cash register sits unused on the counter, slathered in so much pink paint it won't open.

Two walls show cabinets with sliding glass doors that hold hundreds of quaint little statues, mugs and trinkets. And in the middle of the store, a small stand holds a few dozen vintage greeting cards.

All the extras have been here to carry them through the lean stretches between the busy holidays, which aren't really that busy anymore.

"We sell odds and ends," Szymanski says, looking over the miscellany. "You gotta carry a little bit of everything. Not a lot, but enough to keep going."

But it won't be going for much longer. "It's been a long time," Turza says with a sigh. He wants to retire. And once he closes the doors, they'll be closed for good.

St Hedwig's is an unusual place. A chain card store like Hallmark wouldn't have 30-year-old greeting cards with dated imagery selling for a mere dime apiece. A suburban gift shop wouldn't stock dainty figurines appreciated these days mostly by elderly ladies. Most florists wouldn't have a puppy wandering freely in the back, chewing stray flower stems.

But they've remained frozen in time by remaining hidden, like so many other little businesses tucked away in far-flung parts of the city are, shielded from competition and the pressures of modernity. "It's old fashioned, so we keep it old fashioned," Szymanski says. "We keep it old fashioned because people are used to it."

They rely for their traffic mostly on longtime loyal customers, people living nearby who don't want to drive to the suburbs for flowers and people who moved away but still come back for nostalgic reasons. "I've had people call and say, 'You did my mother's wedding. Can you do mine?'" Szymanski says.

Their stock hasn't changed in years. Neither has what they charge. "They're the same price they've always been," says Turza. "A lot of the prices have been there for years." Only the cost of the flowers has kept pace with the market.

The figurines remain cheap because there's not much demand for them. "The younger people don't really buy them," Szymanski says. "I'm not crazy for the figurines either. They're here just because they've always been here."

Over the years, business has gradually dried up. There are fewer people living nearby than when it opened, so their natural customer base is smaller. The shop isn't on a commercial strip, so few shoppers come to the area. Mostly though, he says, people nowadays get their cards at chain drug stores and flowers can be bought at the grocery stores. The special things little shops like these sell aren't that special anymore.

"Everybody's got them," Szymanski complains. "You can go to Meijer, Kroger, they all carry flowers. You can go to any grocery store and get greeting cards. ACO Hardware even has them. Years ago you never had that. They're taking the business away from everybody that's small. Big business today is trying to take over everything."

The two men met 45 years ago in a little bar in Ohio. They got to talking, and found out that Turza's grandmother had lived in the flat below the Szymanskis on Detroit's east side when both men were kids. "It's a small world," Szymanski says.

Turza found the little flower shop for sale in the late '60s and invited Szymanski to join him here. The woman selling it had owned it since the Depression, until her husband died and left her alone with their store and his gambling debts. She sold one to pay off the other. "She was like, 'What am I gonna do without my husband?' She just wanted to get rid of everything," Szymanski says. "She wasn't thinking right." Turza bought it, and the woman moved into an apartment upstairs, where she stayed for 30 more years, helping out now and then in the shop she used to own.

Four decades later, the two men want to retire and now face what so many longtime business owners in the city deal with — the truth that everything they've worked for is ending. There's nobody to pass the shop onto, because a place like this, in a city like this, can't make enough money to survive.

"This was the worst Christmas we've ever had," Szymanski says, thinking back to last year. Poinsettias used to carry the season. "We had this one lady that ordered for a church, she'd order 15 plants or 20 plants for church at $10 a crack. She couldn't afford them this year. She called and said she was sorry. She's ninetysomething years old and said 'I just can't do it no more.'" She was so loyal that, instead of simply not showing up anymore, she felt she had to call and explain. At these old-time neighborhood stores, when a customer breaks their buying routine, it's noticed. Lately, she's not the only one making that phone call to them.

Across the street, a pile of cinders and charred wood that used to be another building housing small businesses rots in the sun. Szymanski says he sat with neighbors at the picnic table under the tree next to the store and watched it burn down one evening last year.

"There was a cleaners across the street, there was a doctor, a dentist, all this stuff, and now they're all gone. They moved out, stores got empty, then they started burning them down. And that's like anywhere in Detroit."

That's how old stores go away here, he says. Szymanski figures the same will happen when he and Turza retire. Sometimes, the ending for a place like his isn't a happy one.

"We'll close it down and they'll probably burn it down," he says, resigned. "In this neighborhood, who knows? Or it'll be an empty building. Just another one to join all the others that are around."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]