I’ve never lived in Oak Park, but I did a lot of growing up in a storefront, Garland Flowers on the 100 block of South Oak Park Avenue. From the time I was 2 weeks old, my mom, Therese McGuire Hester, showed up to work with me in tow. As years went by, my friends and I used to hide in the walk-in cooler for intense games of hide-and-seek, learned how to drive in the back alley, and came to understand what running a small business really entailed.
The delicacy and beauty of the flowers sometimes simplifies that work in people’s minds. Once, upon telling someone I grew up in a flower shop, they responded, “That’s like something straight out of a fairy tale.” While the shop does sometimes seem quite magical, the reality is, just like any small business, it demands a lot out of those who run it. My mom works plenty of late nights followed by early morning wakeups. Holidays and weekends are when people need flowers most, making breaks few and far between. There were many times growing up when going to the flower shop was truly the last thing I wanted to do on the entire planet. But after heading to college, and not having to be there so often, I began to appreciate it for all I got from growing up there.
With every customer who walked through the front door, also came a story. From the famous pianist who played for Princess Diana to the man who bought a single carnation every Saturday, I was exposed to plenty of different people from all walks of life. The connections were not just surface level either. When someone is in need of flowers, it is typically at times when emotions are at their highest. Weddings. Birthdays. Funerals. I have watched my mom laugh, and cry, with plenty of her customers — a service that I’m quite sure Amazon doesn’t offer.
Someone once told me my mom collects people not things, and I have to assume that it’s because of these connections. The same is likely true of many small business owners. Creating meaningful bonds with your customers is your life-blood. The customer might get a bouquet, or a meal, or a gift out of the deal, but also so much more.
Mostly though, my favorite part about life in the flower shop was watching my mom model what it means to be a hard worker while simultaneously being a compassionate and contributing member of her community. Whether it be gifting plants to young couples new to Oak Park or donating gift cards to local school fundraisers, Oak Park is a place she is invested in, not just somewhere she comes to do her business and leave. The same can be said for any of the businesses that line Lake Street, Harrison Street, or any of the many other business districts in this village.
Last summer I saw a sign in the city that read, “Support small business or risk becoming the suburbs you fled.” I agreed with its general message, but found some irony in its second half. A great deal of what draws people in, and keeps people staying in this suburb are small businesses and the people inside.
Oak Park is all the better for them being here.
Mary Hester is a student at Kenyon College. She is serving an internship at Wednesday Journal this summer.