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Flowers for everyone Small business focuses on diversity,

Published: Monday, August 21, 2000
Page: P1D
Byline: Kelly Regan Bill Richards won't tell you about the egg he found one morning splattered across his front picture window or the handwritten anti-gay sign someone posted on the sidewalk beside his flower shop on Washington Street West.

Richards expresses himself better with blossoms than with words. When he was a young boy in Greenbrier County he collected flowers for his mother and grandmother in brown paper bags. Now he makes 15-foot sculptures for fancy parties at the state Cultural Center.

In June, Richards decorated his corner window with rainbow-colored swaths and purple upside-down triangles in honor of gay pride week.

Friends and co-workers worried the display was too risky and political for an independent business that can't afford to lose customers.

Richards didn't flinch.

"My first thought was somebody would probably break the window out," said Martha Roberts, who has worked at Jan's Flowers for 31 years.

Bruce Severino, co-founder of the Living Aids Memorial Garden on Washington Street East, called the window, "a pretty bold move," and "really the first time that a business did something like that ... to my memory, in this town." Richards organized this year's Living Aids Memorial Garden fund-raiser at The Broadway for Severino. He donated $2,000 worth of flowers and transformed a back room of the dance club and bar on Broad Street into an actual garden with trees and vines and flowers.

"I don't think that there's many people in this world that their life hasn't been touched by AIDS in some way," Richards said. "This industry's been touched quite a lot by that." Richards recognized that he was gay when he was 18 and in Rainelle, a small logging town on the western end of Greenbrier County. When he was 20, after six months in Chicago, he moved to Charleston and started work for Jan Christian, who opened Jan's Flowers in 1954.

In 1993, Richards and Pearce McLain bought the business. McLain previously owned the McLain School of Theatrical Dance. Last week, McLain was traveling in Florida with family and was unavailable for this story.

On June 5, Richards, McLain, Roberts and James Hurley fixed Jan's corner window display. The group arranged carnations in the colors of the rainbow, and strung a rainbow banner on the shop's roof while cars slowed to see what was happening on Washington Street.

"He was not nervous at all," Severino said. "He was going to do this thing and he was proud to be able to do it." Roberts was nervous. "A lot of your older customers do not understand, and I just had really, really mixed feelings." When she expressed her concern, Richards just shrugged in his quiet, to-the-point way. "Well, if it happens, it happens," he said to her.

Like all independent businesses, flower shops struggle to compete with grocery stores and Wal-Mart. Flower shops have the added pressure of out-of-state operations that place ads in the local yellow pages, a practice Richards plans to lobby the Legislature to ban this year.

Richards used the example of "Karin's Florist," a call center in Northern Virginia whose full-page ad dwarfs local shops in the telephone book. "It's deceiving in the way it's presented," Richards said. "When you pick it up, you think you're looking at a florist that's right in Charleston." Call operators for Karin's take orders in Virginia and route them to local shops in West Virginia. They charge customers a $10 to $12 fee and charge local flower shops 20 percent off the cost of the arrangement. Local flower shops typically charge $5 to send orders.

"It's more expensive for the customer, plus it takes away from the local market," Richards said. Eleven states have banned out-of-state advertisements like Karin's Florist, he said.

To compete, Richards focuses on good customer service and unique arrangements unlike what you'd get from national outfits like Teleflora and FTD. Other business owners might steer away from bold displays that could alienate customers. But Richards sees it the other way. His message is inclusion, not exclusion.

"It's just a statement that says we celebrate diversity, that we encompass all people, and all walks of life, and all religions, and all of everything," Richards said.

As for the egg and the sign? Richards won't mention it unless you ask him. He wrote it off as childish, not dangerous. "It didn't bother me at all," he said.

To contact staff writer Kelly Regan, use e-mail or call 348-5163.

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