CONCORD — To reach Millbrook Farm from Boston, you must go out of your way. Take Route 2 west into historic Concord, past thickets of snow-drenched woods and picturesque Colonials. If you know where you’re going, you’ll find it, after a series of right turns, tucked back on the Cambridge Turnpike before the road abruptly closes to anyone passing through.
The family-run nursery — which specializes in flowers and hanging plants in the spring, pumpkins and mums in the fall, and Christmas trees and wreaths in the winter — has survived its share of troubles.
Sal Giurleo, 80, the brusque family patriarch, started the business 31 years ago, following in the footsteps of his father, an Italian immigrant who grew vegetables for First National grocery stores in the 1940s and ’50s. Big-box stores like Home Depot have taken a bite out of the gardening industry. For small growers, such as the Giurleos, it’s harder than ever to compete.
But this year has been their worst. When construction began on the Cambridge Turnpike this spring, sales at Millbrook Farm plummeted. Although part of the turnpike remained open, roadwork made it virtually impassable. Construction vehicles and machinery frequently blocked both lanes. Until recently, the road was dug up and unpaved.
One longtime customer, Gail Keane, a local realtor, likened the turnpike to the twisted and treacherous Ho Chi Minh Trail. “You couldn’t get here,” she said.
Shaun Giurleo, 50, Sal’s youngest son, estimates that by midsummer and fall, sales had plunged 90 percent. At their lowest point, they saw no more than one customer a day. Sal had to take out two loans, totaling $52,000, to keep the business afloat. They had no choice but to sell their flowers and plants wholesale at a fraction of the price they would normally charge their customers. To make matters worse, two months ago, Sal’s wife, Jean, 79, slipped and fell on the kitchen floor at their house next door and broke her hip.
The Giurleos prepared for a tight Christmas. Sal worried he would have to take out another loan and sink deeper into debt. He was determined to stay open, no matter the cost.
In late November, news of the Giurleo family’s plight proliferated across Facebook, Nextdoor, and e-mail as residents of Concord and beyond urged their friends and neighbors to patronize the struggling Millbrook Farm.
“Remember MILLBROOK FARM down the Cambridge Turnpike just past the Concord Museum? They could use your business,” a typical Facebook post went, before relaying the story of the Giurleos’ predicament.
“I hope you will consider purchasing your tree, wreath, and other seasonal decorations at MILLBROOK FARM this season and hopefully this small, local business can continue to stay in business.”
The Giurleos’ Christmas miracle arrived early, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Millbrook Farm was unusually busy for a weekday, which Shaun thought was odd. But nothing could have prepared the Giurleos for what happened on the Friday after the holiday. From 9 a.m. until sundown, cars parked up and down the turnpike, as many as 20 at time. The crowds were unlike anything they’d ever seen, driving from as far as Natick and Saugus.
It was the busiest day in Millbrook Farm’s history. Shaun guesses they sold between 350 and 400 Christmas trees, about half their lot. Saturday was even busier.
By the end of the weekend, they had sold more trees in just four days than they would normally sell in a year. Some folks were even more generous: At least 10 customers paid for two trees when they only took home one. Another customer asked the Giurleos to charge him $500 for a single tree.
On Tuesday afternoon, in the wake of the snowstorm, their stock of Frasers and balsams was mostly picked over. About a dozen or so snow-dusted trees remained from the weekend, propped up in the lot behind Sal’s house.
“We had a million people here. We weren’t ready. We didn’t know,” Sal said later, chuckling, as he leaned against the open bed of a U-Haul truck, wearing a Patriots cap and an unzipped jacket, with a stack of about 20 balsam and Fraser Christmas trees piled high behind him.
Millbrook Farm is now replenishing its inventory with help from other garden centers and wholesalers in the region.
Inside the storefront, an ebullient Shaun worked the cash register. Despite the weather, the nursery was humming with customers, picking up vibrant wreaths that Shaun had carefully decorated with handmade bows and other baubles, and whatever trees were left until Sal’s shipment arrived.
“It’s been so busy,” Shaun remarked to one customer, breathlessly, as she paid for her wares. “Thank you! Have a great day! Thanks for being patient!”
The Giurleos won’t recoup all of their losses from the past year, but their business will survive until the next season. Thanks to the influx of sales, Sal immediately paid off his debts. He expects he’ll need 300 more trees in anticipation for this weekend’s rush.
“It couldn’t have happened to better people,” Keane, the realtor, said as she shopped for wreaths for her clients Tuesday. “This is a town treasure.”