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Wilting economy is bad for florists

The Baltimore Sun

Who doesn't smile when surprised with a dozen roses at work? Even after seeing the "I love you very much" card from her fiance? Meet Melissa Fralin.

It's not that Fralin is ungrateful or shy. And it's not because, ha ha, she works at the Motor Vehicle Administration in Westminster and faces a daily onslaught of people with vehicle registration issues.

No, the 28-year-old customer agent seemed ho-hum the other day because she gets flowers all the time from her fiance, Neal Shiloh. Those were her words: All the time. The roses marked their 18-month "anniversary." But he'll sweetly send a bouquet just because she had a bad day, which, believe it or not, does happen.

Naturally, Dutterer's flower shop in downtown Westminster, the source of Fralin's floral bounty, loves Neal Shiloh very much - and dearly wishes he could be cloned as some new breed of recession-resistant consumer.

Business is wilting at Dutterer's - a third-generation family business that predates the Great Depression - and at florists everywhere as the economy sinks into the swamp. You have to buy gas, milk and bread. You have to pay the mortgage and electric bill, if you can. You don't have to buy flowers unless, apparently, you're Neal Shiloh.

Florists sense the danger before others. They're the carnation in the coal mine. For Dutterer's, the start of summer, always slow, went dismally. Now sales are about 30 percent below normal.

In July, for the first time in decades, the business had to lay off six employees, half its work force. Many had been with the shop, and therefore the Dutterers, since the 1980s or earlier.

In the city's Main Street area, all four florists are feeling the pinch. "Nobody's buying flowers," said economic development administrator Stan Ruchlewicz. "They're not getting the hubby picking up stuff on the way home type thing."

"You worry a lot," said Dutterer's co-owner Jalna Brown, 51, whose grandparents, Stewart and Edna Dutterer, opened the business 89 years ago.

"Your sleep goes from eight hours to 21/2 or three a night," said her 44-year-old sister, Lori Welsh-Graham. The two sisters own the business with their mother, Eileen Dutterer Gist.

"We deal with perishable items," Brown said. The flowers originate as far away as Holland and South Africa. "You can't freeze it or put it in the closet for next time."

Making matters worse, wholesalers have raised prices, but the shop can't pass the costs on to consumers at a time like this. So they order fewer flowers, offer less-expensive specials and cut costs wherever possible.

The sisters described their distress at the start of another day at the shop's turreted Victorian edifice on Pennsylvania Avenue. At a glance, all seemed fine and downright festive.

This being October, potted mums in bronze, white and maroon lined the steps. Orange silk flowers hung gaily in the front window. One display featured pumpkins and, in a possibly iffy move given the circumstances, a scarecrow.

Slow doesn't mean dead. Pamela Thompson, the wise-cracking sales manager, organized the front counter. Deliveryman Tom Rosso got ready to head over to a funeral home in the white van with its "ROSES2U" vanity plates.

In the back, Aunt Louise - Louise Dutterer, sister-in-law of Eileen Dutterer Gist - nimbly assembled a fall arrangement using Baker fern, yellow daisies and bronze pompoms, much as she has since the Eisenhower administration.

The business began in 1919 when Stewart Dutterer returned from World War I and couldn't find work as a wallpaper hanger. He planted flowers in the backyard and sold blooms to soldiers passing through Westminster's train station.

In the mid-1930s, the shop moved a few doors up to its present location at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and what is now Dutterer Way. The business endured the Great Depression, the stagflation of the 1970s and a few recessions here and there.

It has not only survived but thrived. Beyond doing brisk business in Westminster, the Dutterer women have helped adorn four presidential inaugurals, starting with George Bush's in 1989, and arranged roses for the mid-1980s rededication of the Statue of Liberty in New York.

The downturn at Dutterer's manifests itself in many little ways. A guy may buy one rose instead of 12, or a bunch of random flowers instead of roses. Thompson, the sales manager, sees corporate clients placing more modest orders. Account holders who used to pay with cash now whip out the plastic.

Then there's Shiloh, who's 31 and supervises driving test examiners at the MVA. He ordered six red and six white roses in a vase. Rosso, the deliveryman, arrived before lunch, skirting the long lines to reach Fralin's post at Station 2.

"You just want to keep doing the little things in a relationship to make the other person feel wanted and loved and appreciated," Shiloh explained later.

Even in this lousy economy? "You always find a way."

The folks at Dutterer's hope he's right.

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