Where conversations bloom

Joan, and daughter Donna, are definitely among the hopeful ones. They run a small flower and gift shop in the Scottish town of Carnoustie.

"There are always the hopeful ones," Joan says, nimbly contriving a bow in two-tone green ribbon to tie an immaculately arranged bunch of chrysanthemums.

"Hope" is involved because small shops are a threatened species. Shopping centers proliferate, and small shops flounder. Shops in this golfing and seaside town, with its one main street, are no exception.

Joan had long wanted to have a flower shop. After a lengthy history of jobs (including waitress, assembly-line worker, inspectress at National Cash Register in nearby Dundee, and then assistant in a florist shop there), this is the first time she's worked for herself.

When daughter Donna agreed to be her business partner - more than happy to do the accounts - Joan grasped the opportunity. And where could be better than in her hometown?

Joan talks. She tells me most of her life story ("A story," she remarks, grinning, "always adds arms and legs") in gaps between customers coming and going through the day.

To them she always has something chatty or cheeky to say, too. She seems to know most of them well. First-name basis. I feel like the audience at a play.

A shop is a kind of mini-theater. It has its exits and its entrances, its snatches of monologue and dialogue. There are "customerisms," "Joanisms," and "Joanisms-plus-customerisms." A steady stream. The shop is a social occasion disguised as a trading place.

Customerisms:

A browser: "On a nice day, it is nice having a wee look here and a wee look there." Then, poking her head around the door: "I meant to ask if you still had the white rabbit?"

A young woman, rushing, needs two bunches of flowers - any flowers: "Come on! Tell me which!"

Parting shot from a customer who spent far too much on a large doll in peasant costume: "Bye! Now don't put anything else nice in the window, Joan!

Joanisms:

To the visiting greeting-card salesman: "I think I've sold one box of cards. I could almost get excited."

Comment on a lady who had earlier bought three of the four solanums displayed outside the shop door: "For goodness' sake, why didn't she buy that one, too?"

To a customer buying potted plants: "They're actually a very good price. Cheap and nasty, that's us!"

Joanisms plus customerisms:

Customer: "Hi"

Joan: "My! What have you done to your hair?" (To me, aside: "Can only say this to someone you know.")

Customer: "It's black and orange."

Joan: "I liked it better when it was one color. All black."

Customer: "It was never all black."

Small boy (whose mother has asked for a balloon-message to be attached to a gift): "I'll let go o' it."

Joan (with undeniable, grandmotherly certainty): "No. You won't."

A very young woman enters with a dead ivy. She buys a replacement.

Joan: "Now don't overwater it. Let it go dry for two weeks and then immerse it in water. And you'll maybe not kill 'em off so quickly!"

Customer: "OK. Right." (Exits).

Joan (to me): "Young ones are difficult. She'll be back again."

The shop's name is "Chintzy." It is a treasure-chest of flowers real and silk, cards and candles, straw rabbits, artificial trees, message-balloons, baskets, painted buckets, key rings, teddy bears, and teddy bears. And teddy bears

"American visitors think that 'Chintzy' means 'cheap and nasty,' " Joan says, and laughs. The true intention was presumably to suggest the bright colors of chintz. This shop is nothing if not rainbow-hued and cheerful.

In quieter moments, I hear Joan's philosophical musings. "At least the shop brightens up the corner of the street," she says. Though she'll "never retire rich in Carnoustie," trade is improving. "It gets better and better each Christmas, Mothers' Day, and Valentine's.

"Christmas is the best time. Donna and I do an assembly line, making up posies and wreaths." And this has been "a good year for weddings."

In spite of vigorous competition from (some might say "war with") a long-established florist down the street (it has a financial arrangement with the local funeral director, Joan says), she does get work for both weddings and funerals. She actually prefers the latter. "They are my favorite."

What I thought might be a slightly boring day, turns out to have nonstop interest and entertainment.

"You do have your off-days," she admits. "But I just go out there and smile."

And she does. I can vouch for it.

Second in an occasional series observing people doing their jobs.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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