Facing last Christmas in Boston, Flower Exchange looks to bloom anew in Chelsea
For vendors at the century-old Boston Flower Exchange, the holiday season is about to wrap up — in more ways than one.
The last of the poinsettias, wreaths, and festive cut greens have made their way out of the sprawling warehouse, the end of a 45-year run as a new owner prepares to build a tech-office campus on the Albany Street property.
“We talk about it all the time; it’s very sad,” said Ken Wasserman, one-half of Quinlan-Wasserman Inc., one of a dozen vendors that have to move out by Jan. 31. “It’s the last Christmas, the last Easter, the last Valentine’s Day, the last Mother’s Day — we’ve been saying it all year.”
A vestige of early 20th century commerce, the iconic wholesale cooperative, founded in 1909 at a nearby location in the South End, may be a casualty of gentrification, but it will live on in a new city, and under a new name.
All but two wholesalers will move to a 65,000-square-foot facility on 2nd Street in Chelsea and operate as the New England Flower Exchange. Abbey Group, which is buying the Boston Flower Exchange property, reportedly for more than $40 million, also bought the name.
Just six miles north, the Chelsea location was the closest property they could find suitable for industrial use. But the new location is a source of concern for some customers, especially those coming from south of Boston, said Gerry Cupp, owner of Cupp & Cupp Corp. at the exchange, who holds the master lease for the Chelsea property.
Many of the exchange’s customers arrive before dawn and then head back to their retail businesses during morning commuting hours, so those going south will be coming through Boston during peak congestion.
“We do have a lot of uneasiness among our South Shore customers in regards to the extra drive over to Chelsea,” Cupp said. “I think there will be a little dip in sales until people get used to that, it’s not that bad to go to Chelsea.”
For generations, retailers from all over New England have been supplied by the Boston Flower Exchange, one of the few such exchanges remaining in the country. Today, the majority of American retail florists order their flowers and plants online, missing out on the sensory experience found at a marketplace like Boston’s, Wasserman said.
“It’s a very unique place. The buyers all go there, the chain stores go there, the florists. It’s like a fish market, they see what’s new and what’s growing,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an outdated model; it’s a model that works and it’s been pushed out because of the price of land.”
Founded by more than 100 local growers, the exchange moved to Albany Street in 1971 from Tremont Street. It was at its current location that the exchange grew from selling just locally grown flowers to wholesaling goods from across the United States and from countries including Ecuador, Colombia, the Netherlands, and Ethiopia.
With flower stores in the South End and South Boston, Yianni Tsaousidis, the owner of Stapleton Floral Design, said he thinks nothing of shooting over to the exchange several times a day because it’s so close. He won’t be able to do that once the exchange moves to Chelsea.
“We’ll try to get everything we need in one trip instead of making multiples now,” Tsaousidis said. “But the good thing is that we’re still going to have a flower exchange. We’re very fortunate, as opposed to the rest of the country. We have a place to go to.”
Many of the current vendors have spent the better part of three decades there, some watching their children grow from kids playing around the merchandise to adults helping to sell it.
Cupp, who has been selling cut flowers from the exchange for more than 35 years, tried with two other wholesalers to buy the South End property last year after its shareholders voted to sell it. But at a price in the tens of millions of dollars, the property was well beyond their reach, Cupp said.
His anchor spot at the exchange, where six of his eight children help with the family business, is adorned with flyers alerting customers to the new Chelsea location. Initially hesitant to leave the heart of the area’s floral industry, Cupp is now ready to start fresh, he said.
“Somebody told me it’s the stages of grief, all that stuff, and I must be in stage 8 or 9 or something because I’m excited about moving on and I think we can make it better,” Cupp said on a recent afternoon at the exchange. “Given the choice, I would rather stay here, but that is not a choice. I would love to just be standing here 30 years from now and die, but that ain’t gonna happen. I have to go do it in Chelsea.”
Cupp signed a 16-year lease with the option of two five-year renewals at the Chelsea location, which is being retrofitted to include better lighting and larger refrigerators than the South End building has, and loading docks that will allow shipping trailers to back directly into the building without breaking the “cold chain” that’s crucial to keeping many flowers fresh and alive.
Ten of the exchange’s 12 vendors will set up shop in Chelsea. One plans to retire and close for good. Quinlan-Wasserman will stay in the South End. Wasserman and his partner, Kevin Quinlan, plan to move next door to Jacobson Floral Supply, a family-owned distributor of floral accessories, after its president, Bill Jacobson, offered them a spot.
“It was a hard decision. I’m a market guy, Kenny’s a market guy, we understand the flower market philosophy and the way it works, but it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up,” said Quinlan, a third-generation wholesaler who took over the family business and merged it with Wasserman’s in 2001. “We’re anticipating our space and our new location to be very well received. The Boston flower wholesale business is still alive in Boston, and it’s right next door.”
Jacobson said he would have liked to “get them all in here,” but only had room for one vendor. He said he was disappointed the warehouse was sold and dismissed the notion that it is a harbinger of things to come for the remaining flower businesses in the neighborhood.
“We realize that there’s change, but we’re focused on keeping this business and this industry in the city of Boston,” Jacobson said.
Andrea Tedford, who runs R.J. Carbone Co. and plans to relocate to Chelsea, said she is glad to be leaving a building that was “built for another era.” Tedford, who’s been at the exchange 36 years, tired of having to break down large pallets of imported cut greens to fit in the exchange’s smaller coolers.
“For when it was built, it was perfect . . . but it has outlived its purpose,” Tedford said, recalling the neighborhood at the time as run down. Now, “the area is gentrified. Forget it, it’s time to go. Change is good.”