by Tim Gilmore, 4/13/2019
“It’s a long story,” Lenny says, laughing. “The heavens opened up and God leaned down.” God told him not to screw things up. Thus was St. Johns Flower Market born.
He leans over his coffee, looks up at me and says, “We learned the flower business through fundraising for the Reverend Moon’s church.”
Leonard and Marianne Thiesen were wed by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, in a mass wedding ceremony in Madison Square Garden in 1982. They didn’t know each other before Moon arranged their marriage and those of more than 2,000 other new couples.
Lenny’s long strange journey to opening one of the city’s best-loved flower shops 25 years ago took him from Los Angeles to Gloucester, Massachusetts to Jacksonville, where he interacted with Ed’s Roses and Ribs and Mr. Love, “the flower pimp of Jax,” then finally to one of “midcentury modern” architect Taylor Hardwick’s butterfly-winged dairy buildings.
This Saturday morning, Emily’s trimming roses just inside, beneath one of those butterfly cantilevers. Spray roses are among her favorites—the wild elegant cyclings of several tiny flowers on each stem. And she loves the lush layers of Ranunculus blooms pink, red, and burgundy.
Apropos that she’s processing flowers beneath the wing. Hardwick designed the drive-through dairy for the Skinner family when they stopped home deliveries of milk and other dairy products in the 1950s. The milkman couldn’t compete with sales in groceries and convenience stores. The first 400 square foot Skinners’ Dairy opened in 1958. Nearly two dozen proliferated across the city in the next couple decades.
Now Emily’s arranging dark purple ruffled Lisianthus flowers in a bouquet. She’s a junior at the University of North Florida, studying journalism and minoring in Environmental Studies. She wears chic linen overalls, her hair a longish bob, her nose retroussé. When she was a little girl, she fantasized about living above her own flower shop.
So did Marianne Thiesen, who grew up on an Austrian farm and stood later in Madison Square Garden, “the world’s most famous arena,” where a Korean man who claimed to be the Christian Messiah married her to a man she did not know. They’ve raised four children.
All four children have worked in the shop, Katrina since attending Kindergarten across the street at Fishweir Elementary School. In high school she skipped class to work on her art, but “finally,” she says, “I realized my medium was flowers.”
Standing beside a counter covered with Easter lilies, her waist-length dreadlocks piled high on her head, Katrina recalls arranging a floral cornucopia when she was 18 and showing it to her father. A “big ball of about $75 worth of flowers” poured forth gloriously and Katrina felt proud.
“My dad came in and said, ‘It’s pretty, but let me show you how I would’ve done it.’ He made a similar arrangement with half the flowers and it was bigger.” She’s proud of her mother as a businesswoman and her father as an artist.
Marianne and Lenny moved to Los Angeles to work with seafood wholesalers raising funds for the Unification Church. “The church had all these different businesses everywhere,” Lenny says. On weekends, Marianne and Lenny bought the week’s leftover roses, a dime a head, and sold them for two bucks each, or three for five dollars. Marianne learned the business. In those hellish Los Angeles summers, unsold roses wholesaled for six cents.
When the Thiesens moved to Gloucester, “America’s Oldest Seaport,” on Cape Anne, Massachusetts, Lenny worked for the church as “back man on a lobster boat.” He says, “The fishermen loved the church members because they’d show up for work and not be hungover.” Eventually the church brought him to Jacksonville, selling Swarovski animal figurines.
“That job was so bad,” he says. “This company bought the crystals and glued them together to make teddy bears and kitty cats. I went around to all these little shops to try to sell these things to women to occupy their shelf space.”
Making “zero money with crystals,” Lenny took a job at a fish farm in Hastings, an hour south of Jacksonville. A friend said, “You could take a sack of potatoes and sell them door to door and make more money than that,” to which Lenny said, “Then why don’t we do flowers?”
He didn’t know the flower circuit was gangster’d. He soon met “Fast Eddy,” as he calls him, of Ed’s Roses and Ribs on the Westside. Meanwhile, “Mr. Love” had pretty girls walking into bars across the city selling flowers and told Lenny to back off “his” establishments, boasting, “My girls sell the shit outta roses.”
Marianne was buying leftover wholesale roses and Lenny sold flowers and sterling silver and gold and turquoise jewelry across the city. A girl who worked in a cheesecake bakery in the old Skinners’ Dairy at the peninsular convergence of St. Johns Avenue at Oak and Herschel Streets was always good for cheap earrings. The “cheesecake mill” made some 300 cheesecakes a week for the Marriott at Sawgrass, 45 minutes away at Ponte Vedra Beach.
Friends had told Marianne, “You should open a hole-in-the-wall flower shop somewhere.” Then one day, as Lenny approached the little bakery to sell some earrings, he saw the place was closed. His heart sank. He’d been sure to make a few bucks. He’d worked countless thankless jobs across the country and was tired of scraping his knees from L.A. to Gloucester to Jax just to make some change. And it had all come to this moment. Was not this the end? Rock bottom? Nadir?
It was instead his rather Monty Python epiphany: “The heavens opened up and God leaned down and said, ‘Here’s a corner any idiot could make a living on. Don’t screw it up!’”
St. Johns Flower Market profited immediately from the clientele, residing in Ortega and Avondale, whom Lenny calls “The Ladies who Lunch.” The Thiesens put $1500 on a credit card and they were open for business. They needed to make $100 a day; they made $200 a day. Now a $400 day seems worrisome. Every now and then, an old customer from old wealth spends $7- or $800 on a whim.
The former dairy was perfectly located to sell flowers. The old wealth of Ortega and Avondale spread along the river to either side. Riverside Avondale, stretching three miles to Five Points, was as hippy, earthy, artsy as any place in the city. Fishweir Elementary School, Public School No. 20, stood right across the street, promising a steady customer base of parents celebrating talent shows, dances, the Christmas Nutcracker, and “graduations” from Kindergarten through fifth grade.
Thus, today, Emily, who once danced at Fishweir as Clara, the lead in The Nutcracker, never losing grace as the head fell off the Nutcracker doll with whom she danced before a packed auditorium, settles the lovely elegant blossoms of orchids like pink Cymbidiums, holds in her hand a blossoming explosion of many-hued blue and white delphiniums.
Then strange pink and orange blooms reach out from her arm, flowering from her hand, clawing like feathered fingers, or curling inward like hundred-fingered grasps about a green-stamen’d core and palm. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and “father of taxonomy,” who first put into practice the current system of naming and cataloging biological and botanical life, named this genus of flowering plants “Protea,” after the shapeshifting ancient Greek god Proteus, in the early 1700s, for these flowers assumed such varieties of form.
Situated as is the old dairy at the tip of this traffic-intersection peninsula before Goal Post Sandwich Shop, a coin laundry, and a convenience store, the flower shop’s been struck by more than one car.
Before the Thiesens installed central heating and air, the same thief pushed the window unit air conditioner into the shop and onto the floor, late at night, at least twice, and stole 10s and 20s from the register.
The flower shop’s hosted concerts in the parking lot, which is, after all, a prominent open area in the city’s “cultural core.” Shows have featured Jax acts like Goliath Flores, pianist and singer Gina Martinelli, the folk rock band Canary in the Coal Mine, and the bluegrass band Lonesome Ride, featuring Jim Pons, who played bass with The Turtles and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.
The eccentric community surrounding Taylor Hardwick’s butterfly still swirls about the flower shop. People have always talked about “Riverside characters.” Like Virginia King, who wrote that 8,000+ page book about Jacksonville.
Like Charlie Strickland. Everyone knew him by sight. Charlie wore faded and yellowed white button-up shirts. He walked across Riverside Avondale, Fairfax and Ortega daily, in the brutal heat, in the cold, in the rain. After Charlie died just before Christmas 2007, his obituary read, “An inveterate individualist, Charlie was often recognized on his long daily walks through local neighborhoods. Many who knew him saw him as part of an era of Jacksonville that has nearly disappeared.” He once gave Lenny a broken plastic flower vase he’d found on his walks. “Here,” he said. “You might want this.”
And there was Jonathan Lux, the young artist whose Warholian painting of Hardwick’s many “Skinners” sketched in columns and rows now hangs in the UNF library. “We did the flowers for his wedding,” Lenny says, “and for payment, he painted a picture of the shop.” It hangs now above the baby’s breath, the leatherleaf ferns, the filler flowers and spray blooms.
Emily, who always loved flowers, has learned in the year she’s worked here a special love for Ranunculus, those effervescing petals, globed fruitlike and redpinkwhite, for daffodils and anemones, for parrot tulips whose petals stripe round with color, some fringed, each single bloom singular, not merely recherché, but sui generis.
Paying such close attention to so many varieties of flower has made Emily read the world around her differently. Instead of just seeing a tree-as-tree, she notices its shape, the different lines and curves that make it up—rather than general shapes: specific mappings.
Recognition and imagination, cognition and vision, each inform and infuse the other. So Emily sees “what configurations and bouquets you could make from the shapes of trees, bushes, flowers.” She smiles to herself. She’s tempted to stop and trim Japanese magnolias from strangers’ yards. “I notice every bloom by the roadside,” she says.