Photo by Jessica Keller: Bruce A. Chester, owner of Martha E. Harris Flowers and Gifts in Madison Park, pulls some roses from a cooler at his shop recently. The business, which Chester inherited from founder Martha Harris after she passed, celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2020.
Photo by Jessica Keller: Bruce A. Chester, owner of Martha E. Harris Flowers and Gifts in Madison Park, pulls some roses from a cooler at his shop recently. The business, which Chester inherited from founder Martha Harris after she passed, celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2020.
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Although 2020 was a rough year overall, Martha E. Harris Flowers & Gifts in Madison Park celebrated a significant milestone in 2020 when the shop turned 40 years old.

Although they have been unable to do so yet, owner Bruce A. Chester hopes to fete the achievement along with his husband, staff and customers, with a party sometime this year. He said he didn’t want to celebrate without the loyal customers who have supported and sustained the floral and gift boutique through the year and especially the pandemic.

“Our amazing customers have shown such incredible support through this extraordinary year we have all been going through,” Chester said in an email. “A huge thank you to them.”

Founder Martha Harris started the her floral business in her garage 40 years ago before it moved to a storefront in University Village and then to its current location at 4218 E. Madison St. In 1996, Harris hired Chester as a floral designer. Chester already had extensive experience in the industry, having gotten his start in it as a young teenager, and was working somewhere else when he applied to work for Harris on a whim.

“It all just fell together in a day, basically,” Chester said.

When Harris was diagnosed with cancer, she began turning more duties over to Chester. She later told Chester she wished to leave him the business in her will, and when she passed, he formally took over the business.

“It was just kind of a natural transition to me, taking over,” he said.

Chester said the adjustment was fairly seamless, in part because he and the staff had worked with each other for a long time, and there hadn’t been much turnover.

“I was more than willing to do it,” he said. “It’s a legacy to carry on.”

Chester said turning 40 years is significant for any business, but it is especially so for floral shops and boutiques.

“I believe florists and any business dealing in perishable items have an even more difficult time as our product must be sold right away,” Chester said in an email.

He said, while movies and TV shows often make floral shops look like romantic enterprises, running one is hard and demanding work.

“As much as every day is wonderful working with beautiful gifts from Mother Nature, the business requires long hours, flower shopping at five a.m., working past midnight on holidays, (and) the sacrifice of any personal life, time with friends and family around the holidays,” Chester said in an email.

When new floral shop owners realize all that, accompanied with lots of lifting, stressful deadlines and more, they frequently get out of the business quickly.

“Luckily, I am a person that thrives on this, and it is my passion for it that keeps me going on five hours of sleep nightly and one day off, sort of, between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Chester said in his email.

Initially, while the floral shop started with three components — floral, event and retail, Chester has largely scaled back the event part, which has allowed him to focus his efforts more. That has served him well, especially during the pandemic. Currently, the business is offering delivery services and curbside pickup while keeping the storefront open with added safety measures.

While Chester will incorporate new merchandise and flowers based on popular trends each year, he said any changes he makes must make sense for his business and reflect his customers’ tastes.

Otherwise, Chester said very little has changed since he took over as owner and still reflect the classic style and image first begun by Harris.

“It’s a fine line to walk where we don’t lose our identity, but don’t lose our clientele,” he said.

Chester said he feels honored to carry on Harris’s legacy.

“Martha built a strong foundation for our business with loyalty, respect and dedication to every customer, whether they are spending five dollars or 5,000, and that’s my commitment also,” Chester said in his email.

Chester said he has been fortunate to be able to work in so many aspects of the floral business with many knowledgeable people, through the years, including Harris. He said that knowledge and the bond he shared with Harris has served him well since taking over the business, and he believes he has found the right formula to take the business forward into the “roaring ’20s.”

 

For more information, go to www.marthaeharris.com.