50-year-old flower outlet in Baltimore deeply rooted in Northwest neighborhood Operator prides himself on meeting all requests, no matter how unusual

January 19, 1996|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

The order was simple, but it was an arrangement David Traversari had never tried in his years at the Norman Holt florist shop: create a $30 "floral" display of dead greens and broken flowers and have it delivered to an obnoxious Dallas Cowboys fan.

"I was able to handle that order," Mr. Traversari, the store manager, said dryly as he stood among hacked stems and dried leaves in the flower shop's floral arrangement room.

Norman Holt has always dealt in fresh flowers. But the shop has also always been a shining, colorful face peering through its picture window at Liberty Heights Avenue and Dukeland Street in Northwest Baltimore.

For more than 50 years, the Norman Holt florist shop has displayed in its window a vibrant Valentine's Day or Easter or Christmas or summertime/beach floral arrangement to add a slice of style and perkiness to the Hanlon Park and Mondawmin communities.

It's where Jerome McCoy, 45, noticed three different Valentine's Day floral displays in the window over the years and bought smaller, similar arrangements for marriage proposals to three women.

Each proposal was rejected. This year he plans to buy a modest bouquet of carnations -- for his mother.

It's where Tavon Emerson buys a "peace token" for his wife every couple of weeks, especially those in which he spends more time with his buddies than he does with her.

And it's where Jackie Carroll as a child sat with her father in the store's parking lot and discussed the seasons of the year.

"We'd stop by as we drove by and look at the colors and flowers of each season," said Ms. Carroll, 40, who has lived in the neighborhood since childhood. "Whenever the window changed, we'd stop, take it all in and talk. It helped teach me the seasons of the year."

"Now, it serves the surrounding area well," she said. "Sure, there's grime and crime in here and in every neighborhood. But this is something nice to look at, something pretty that every community needs."

Mr. Traversari is the godson of Norman Holt, the store's founder who started the business after World War II with a bucket of flowers on the sidewalk.

Mr. Holt, who is retired from the flower business, decided to open a flower shop while in France during the war.

"On the streets there were stalls and stalls of flowers, arrays of flowers about a foot high," Mr. Holt said. "That scene stuck in my mind when I came back home."

But flower sales have changed. Before, men routinely would stop by his shop Fridays to buy flowers for their sweethearts.

"Now, the average male who comes in to buy flowers does it because he is in trouble," Mr. Traversari said. "It has to be a specific reason why someone will come and buy flowers -- either in trouble or some kind of holiday."

Mr. Traversari changes the window display six to eight times a year to reflect the season.

"It used to be a big focal point," he said. "Now, everybody's in a rush and doesn't always take the time to look at it."

The window display is now set for Valentine's Day, a mere 3 1/2 weeks away and an event about which you'd think Mr. Traversari would be ecstatic: red roses, carnations, stargazers, lilies.

A holiday made with a florist in mind, right? But Mr. Traversari would rather do away with the fanfare. "I'd rather sell the more common flowers than just roses and carnations on Valentine's ++ Day," he said. "It gets to be very expensive. The wholesaler jacks the price of roses, so we have to also. It can get crazy."

It can also be hard during the year to fulfill every floral request. For example, it took great artistic flair to create a flower arrangement of assorted anatomical parts to be delivered to a hospitalized plastic surgeon.

And Karen Neeb, a Norman Holt floral arranger for 17 years, said it took nearly all of her imagination to make the flower arrangement shaped like, and in the colors of, a whiskey bottle that was to be placed in the casket of a dead man who was fond of whiskey.

"I can create in my mind what I want to do, but some flower arrangements have been just odd," she said.

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