When Carolina Flower Shop Too closed in 2011, it looked like the end had finally come for a family-owned store that had served West Harlem for more than 70 years.
But for 48 hours last week, owner Phil Young was back in business during every florist’s paradise: Valentine’s Day.
Hundreds of customers streamed into Young’s temporary outlet, a worn-down storefront on Amsterdam Avenue and 131st Street owned by the West Harlem Progressive Democratic Club, buying elaborate floral arrangements, teddy bears, and boxes of chocolates. Young did such a roaring trade the day before the holiday that Young was forced to restock the next morning just to keep up with demand.
“I would ask people to pay five dollars for a rose, and they would say ‘Five dollars? That’s ridiculous!’” Young said. “But then they would see the way we put it together, and in the end they said, ‘Oh, only five dollars?’”
The store’s return was the first of a number of experimental projects spearheaded by the Democratic club, which plans to lease out its Amsterdam storefront free of charge to local businesses, nonprofits, and community gatherings.
Corey Ortega, the club’s president and a candidate for the local District 7 City Council seat, said he arrived at the idea of creating a multi-use community center in the neighborhood after seeing how often the space went underused.
“The traditional business model for a Democratic club is that we meet once a month or twice a month for the members and a board meeting,” Ortega said. “But for the most part, the space is underutilized. The doors are closed, and the gates are shut.”
Ortega originally met Young in 2011 at the office of State Assembly member Keith Wright, where Ortega worked as an aide. Young came in looking for help with a debt burden that would eventually shutter his flower shop. Despite attempts to secure additional financing and restructure the business, Ortega was unable to prevent Carolina Flower Shop Too from closing.
But Ortega left Young, whom he described as a “master florist,” with a promise.
“I saw that the man had a twinkle in his eye. He had talent for what he did,” Ortega said. “I told Phil not to worry, and that if there is ever an opportunity down the road, I would help him come back. In my line of work, you just need to give someone time.”
And so, three days before Valentine’s Day, Ortega offered Young the newly available storefront for the holiday. Young, who had spent the last two years supporting himself by playing drums and selling flowers out of his house to local churches and funeral parlors, was quick to agree, leading to what Ortega called a “frenzy” of activity as they transformed a political office into a florist’s workshop.
“He was invigorated,” Ortega said. “The guy had an energy about him that I hadn’t seen for two years.”
After the success of what Young called an “initial experiment,” he and Ortega have already begun to map out the future of Carolina Flower Shop Too. Young is planning a similar temporary flower store for Easter, and the duo hopes that within the next year, the storefront will bring in enough business to help Young accumulate some savings. With about $20,000, Young said, he could attract non-traditional lenders such as local development corporations.
“I have so many dreams and plans,” he said. “I’d like to see the shop in a few different places as well.”
However, plans to use the space are not limited to small businesses. Ortega said he had already received interest from nonprofits that want to work out of the storefront, including Single Stop, a national anti-poverty organization, and Per Scholas, which offers technology training in low-income neighborhoods.
Another possibility would be to use the storefront for after-school programs, which Ortega said were especially important for a community suffering from budget cuts in education. The club has even received offers from a local yoga organization, which would use the space for morning sessions.
In the end, both Young and Ortega said the goal is not just to bring back Carolina Flower Shop Too, but also to give back to the community as a whole.
Young said he hopes to follow the example of his grandfather, who originally opened the store in 1939 and hired local children to work part-time in order to help the neighborhood.
“He always reached out, and that’s what it was all about,” Young said. “It’s not just about selling flowers. It’s about giving back.”