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After 80 years, city's premier florist is closing

ST. PETERSBURG — She feels sorry for the peace lilies. All those lovely Easter flowers, left alone and thirsty in some dark Wal-Mart warehouse.

And what about weddings? Who wants a bridal bouquet from the grocery store?

Then there are the cemeteries. Walgreens won't deliver roses to your grandmother's grave.

"No one knows how to take care of flowers like a florist," Marion Lucciola says. "But it just doesn't seem to make a difference anymore to people what their flowers look like, whether they were loved and will live longer than the ones you pick up with a gallon of milk."

Lucciola, 82, sits in a wicker chair at Minshall the Florist, opened by her father in 1928 and now about to close forever. Like many flower shops today, it is a victim of blooming competition and a withering economy.

"This is so hard," she says, her eyes pooling with tears as workmen carry out one of her coolers. "I always thought it would last forever."

Minshall's made its final delivery last week; its last day in business is Friday.

"I'm sorry to hear of your local florist going under, but not surprised," said Lindsay Mangus, whose Raleigh, N.C. firm, Sageworks, tracks national retail sales. Florists' profits have dropped more than 3.6 percent in the last year, she wrote in an e-mail. Across Florida, shop owners' sales have plunged 30 percent since January. In the last six months, the state Florists' Association has lost 64 members.

"Everyone is just hanging on by a nail," says Russ Barley, of the state organization. "I've been in business 34 years, and this is the slowest I've seen it. It's a shame. Everyone thinks they can sell flowers now."

Flower shops have always been an integral part of a community, marking births and graduations, weddings and funerals.

Lucciola has designed bridal bouquets for three generations of St. Petersburg families. She knows which men charge arrangements for their wives — but pay cash for the bigger bouquets they send their lovers.

But lately, she says, days can pass without a customer stopping into the store. On Valentine's Day, orders dropped by one-third compared to last year. She names six florists that have closed this year.

"These days," she says, "food is more important than flowers."

• • •

Flowers brought her family to Florida.

In the fall of 1926, Stanley Minshall was a newlywed designing flowers in Toronto when a fellow Canadian invited him to come work in sunny St. Petersburg. Lucciola was born soon after her parents arrived in the state. Growing up, she says, "The flower shop was my world."

After two years designing arrangements for his friend, Minshall opened his own shop on Central Avenue. Half a shop, really. He shared it with a men's clothing store.

Flowers were transported by train; shipments from Jacksonville took two days. "Sometimes, by the time they got here in the heat, those flowers looked like death warmed over," says Lucciola.

Her dad hired a gardener to grow some of his own stock on the lot beside their 49th Street home: gladiolas and marigolds, snapdragons and zinnias. "Stuff you can't even find in a flower shop these days."

In 1940, Minshall moved his shop to 631 Central Ave. — where, Lucciola says, it became the first air-conditioned florist in Florida. Later that year, Minshall stood proudly at Albert Whitted Airport and greeted the state's first flown-in flowers. Eventually he was prominent enough to serve as mayor, state legislator and president of FTD.

"He loved pink sweetheart roses," Lucciola says, clutching her father's faded portrait. "No one ever orders those any more."

• • •

Back then, women wore corsages. Lucciola and her dad, then her husband too, pulled all-nighters the week before Mother's Day, winding flowers onto wrist straps. "No one wears corsages any more."

Back then, bosses sent flowers to their secretaries. Minshall's would deliver dozens of bouquets. "Now they take them out to lunch or give them gift cards."

Back then, everyone sent flowers to folks in the hospital. "Now everyone is so concerned with allergies, especially at the children's hospitals. So they just buy balloons."

Lucciola took over her dad's business when he died in 1967; her daughter, Amy Loving, started running it 10 years ago. Loving's own daughter worked there, and her granddaughter toddled around the shop playing with petals. Five generations surrounded by flowers.

But lately, Loving has been alone.

A plan for urban development forced Minshall's out of its downtown block in 2005, so Loving moved her grandfather's shop up Central Avenue, closer to 34th Street. At the new location, her rent doubled. And business dwindled.

Big box stores buying peace lillies in bulk can sell them for less than Loving pays for them. Internet sites make ordering more immediate — and impersonal. Competition from groceries and convenience marts cut into walk-in sales.

This year, even corporate customers started cutting back: A mortgage broker who sent his wife flowers every month can no longer afford them. Realtors can't justify fresh flowers for their empty homes. Even the obituary pages conspire against florists, Lucciola says.

"These days, it's always, 'In lieu of flowers, send contributions to the greyhound rescue' or something," she says. "They're telling people not to send flowers. To me, that's negative advertising."

After Valentine's Day, mother and daughter agreed they had no choice but to close. "When you can't come up with enough business to make the rent ... ," Lucciola says.

She sets down her dad's portrait, watches her daughter stack small wheelbarrows into boxes, then sighs and turns to the front counter. Emerald ferns, white fuji mums and yellow lilies fill a clear vase — the last flowers. With a little love, they should live through the shop's last days.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

After 80 years, city's premier florist is closing 03/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 26, 2009 8:05am]

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