We start with a memory: A woman holds a red rose in one hand and presses the Clarke Street crosswalk button with the other.
Her eyes are on traffic. Her mind on business. Patricia Navarro waits.
When the car stops she’ll quick-walk over, present the driver with a rose and tell him about Vivio Flowers, that little shop he just passed. And then the light will turn green and she’ll hope she made a customer.
“The traffic light there,” Navarro smiles, pointing from the floor of her Port Moody shop.
After working long days for more than a year, she sounds happy but tired, like a new parent who got their baby to sleep on the third try.
It was 18 years ago that she handed out roses to drivers on Clarke and offered flowers to soccer moms at games and pracices to get her business moving.
There’s something about the desperation of the pandemic that reminds her of those days, she says.
“People are more sensitive, less patient. They expect more from you. No mistakes. Less tolerance. That’s what the pandemic brought to us,” she says.
About nine kilometres down the road at the Floral Revelry Florist in Port Coquitlam, Karon Fuson describes the opposite experience.
“All humans have been pretty understanding,” she says.
An extroverted, rock ‘n’ roll loving florist, Fuson walks past posters for Jimi Hendrix and Cream as she invites me to: “Come down into the flower dungeon.”
Customers have been able to get flowers – just not necessarily the flowers they asked for, Fuson explains, noting frequent supply problems since COVID-19 began to spread.
“You could get only what you could get,” she shrugs. “Some of the rose farms just had to let their roses rot. There were no pickers.”
Even major flower wholesalers had trouble meeting demand.
“Their shelves were bare,” Fuson says. “I’ve never seen that in my life.”
For Navarro, the shortages sent new, demanding clientele her way.
She recalls one customer brandishing a dead flower and demanding a refund.
“We don’t do that.”
On the day I visit there are two staffers loading up a car with flowers for a delivery. But when the pandemic first hit, some workers and opted to leave in favour of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
With a lack of staff, Navarro and her husband were working long hours.
Through it all, she says she was grateful for local customers.
“We’ve got really nice neighbours,” she notes.
The dealmaker and the wheelman
Jason Graham has been handling deliveries for Fuson since he made his way from Ottawa Ont. to Port Coquitlam nearly three years ago.
“He needed a place to stay,” Fuson says. “He helps me with my business and I give him a break on the rent.”
Talking about the spring of 2020, Graham remembers the alien experience of being the only car on First Avenue in Vancouver.
“When the pandemic first started it was like a ghost town,” he says.
But while the roads were empty his schedule was packed.
“It’s been go, go, go,” he says. “Any free minute you were doing something.”
This year’s Mother’s Day was beyond busy,” Fuson agrees.
“It was like afterburner, barely could keep all the balls in the air,” she says. “At one point I even had to snooze my site for a bit.”
She hated to do it, she says. But even with an out-of-office note on the website, the flower children would still call.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done if he wasn’t here,” she says, gesturing to Graham. “I would’ve been calling on couriers like crazy.”
Over the last few months, Graham says he watched gridlock make a comeback.
“I think it got [busier] than what it was in the first place,” he says.
Flower couriers are frequently on the receiving end of road rage.
With flower arrangements covering the backseat, couriers tend to take corners “like a Sunday driver,” Graham says.
Over on Clarke Street in Port Moody, Navarro’s husband Cyrus Baseghi has run into the same problem.
“You try to back up here and people are going 100 kilometres an hour,” he says. “Where’s the fire, man? Calm down. . . . Everybody’s tense, I think.”
It was especially peculiar when many businesses were closed, Fuson adds.
“They’re in a hurry to get somewhere . . . there’s nowhere to go!” she laughs.
Before the pandemic, Fuson was slated to provide flowers for a slate of summer weddings.
“All of my brides had to cancel except one,” she says.
Finding flowers for even one wedding was a challenge.
“I had to grovel, beg and borrow,” she laughs.
Fuson got the flowers.
With human contact limited, flowers seemed to become more important, Fuson says. Her flowers have been inspiration and “words of encouragement” for those times you couldn’t be there in person.
Fuson grew up with flowers. First, there was her grandparents flower garden on Pitt river Road.
“Bigger than this whole yard,” she says.
When she was six, she’d load up a wagon with her mother’s dahlias or her grandmother’s bouquets and sell them door-to-door.
Navarro’s career follows a somewhat different trajectory.
Asked if flowers were always an interest, she shakes her head.
“No,” she smiles.
Raised on a small farm in Sonora, Mexico, Navarro went to the University of Victoria to study English and ended up pursuing a master’s degree in business and marketing.
Having decided to stay in Canada, Navarro repeatedly applied for a job in a flower shop in Kerrisdale until someone told her: “grab a broom or something.”
She cleaned the floor. She cleaned roses. She moved up.
Some days Navarro cycled from Port Moody to Kerrisdale. On the way she passed the 2000-block of Clarke Street.
“I always liked this area, this particular spot,” she remembers.
Working alongside Baseghi, she started small.
“The first room that you came in, that was our store,” she says, recounting the upholstery shop and furniture refinisher who used to share the space.
Back then, she says she was told the neighbourhood would transform into a Granville Island-like atmosphere.
“But everything went to Newport,” she notes.
Today there’s a vacant lot and a boarded-up store that used to offer guitar lessons across the street.
In the past two years, she says she’s seen signs of change in the neighbourhood.
“Something is happening,” she says. “It’s been static for so long.”
Demand and demanding
There was one customer, Fuson remembers, a man who came to her door in tears. His friend had overdosed and he needed an arrangement of orange and white flowers.
“Florists, we see the profound sadness,” Fuson says. “It’s a very emotional job.”
Without live music as an emotional release, Fuson has lately been spending her evenings piecing together jigsaw puzzles.
“I’ve been run off my feet,” she says.
But recently, just as COVID-19 cases dipped, her business has slowed down. At this point it’s almost a relief.
“I think florists are getting a bit of a reprieve,” she says. “I didn’t realize how tired I felt.”
Oddly enough, as business dwindled, customers became more demanding.
During the worst days of COVID, the clients tended to be flexible about delivery times.
“They’ll jokingly say . . . ‘just drop them at the door and run!’” she laughs. Now, however, customers tend to ask: “Can you get it there in two hours?”
Besides the piles of orders, there’s also the ever-present quandary: if flowers are easy to get they’re inexpensive but widely available and so profit margins tend to be slim. If the flowers are in demand they’re expensive and so, again, profit margins tend to be slim.
“Florists, if you take on that as a career, you’re not going to retire in the south of France,” she says. “You can probably make a living but it is a hard one at times to make because it is like the stock market.”
Where do we go from here?
There’s a piano in the corner of Vivio Flowers.
“We open the door and anybody can play,” Navarro says.
Despite the stress of the pandemic, Navarro says she’s both grateful and optimistic.
She got to know her neighbours a little better, she says.
For Fuson, there’s a certain tension that still hasn’t abated.
“I’m just wondering when we are going to get past looking at people like germs,” she says.
But despite it all, there are elements of the pandemic that are probably positive, Fuson reasons.
“Maybe you don’t need to do these big expensive things to feel life’s rewards. Maybe it’s the smaller things and just knowing that we are all very connected,” she says. “The simpler things, I think, are probably the more meaningful things. I think we’ve learned it. I have.”
As far as imaging a post-COVID-19 future, Fuson envisions something new.
“Some people think that it’s going to be like the Roaring ‘20s, like after the Spanish influenza . . . which was just one big party. But then the ‘30s hit,” she notes. “Maybe we should look at history and learn from it.”
At Vivio Flowers, Baseghi is direct.
Asked if things are getting back to normal, he shakes his head.
“Things will never get back,” he says. “North America is struggling. We all are but we don’t want to admit it.”
A few feet away, a customer picks up some flowers for her 92-year-old mother.
They talk about people they know. They talk about the pandemic.
“It’s almost over,” the customer says. And then she leaves the store.