Square Personalities: Brattle Square Florist

Stephen Zedros picks and chooses stem after stem, sweeping extra foliage away in a brush of the hand, placing each bright flower carefully into its arrangement. Pincushion proteas, gerberas, dahlias, cherry brandy roses, and finally, thin branches of hypericon berry, seem to have grown into the vases spontaneously, beautiful.

Stephen Zedros picks and chooses stem after stem, sweeping extra foliage away in a brush of the hand, placing each bright flower carefully into its arrangement. Pincushion proteas, gerberas, dahlias, cherry brandy roses, and finally, thin branches of hypericon berry, seem to have grown into the vases spontaneously, beautiful.

It’s a rainy day, and the interior of Brattle Square Florist provides a haven from the mist outside; sheltered customers walk over the stems and leaves scattered across the ground of the small space and under hanging plants, browsing among bright colors and the smell of old wood and petals.

In the dim light, behind a main counter cluttered with old receipts and crumbled order papers, Zedros says that these are his favorite tasks. “I like to use seasonal flowers like these,” he says, describing his approach to filling these vases that swell with color. “As soon as the first frost comes—which is tonight, actually—they’ll be gone.”

It seems effortless, the way Zedros can identify each stem, rattling off its prime season, but he’ll tell you that running Brattle Square Florist, the Harvard Square business located at 31 Brattle, is far from it. Zedros differentiates his store from other florists by stressing the large variety of flowers carried, around 300 types daily, and its ability to meet the changing and immediate needs of customers—like the one for whom Zedros is preparing a seasonal arrangement right now, who walked in off the street. “You’ve got to be prepared,” he insists, and so he’s making up this combination as he goes.

Zedros has been managing Brattle Square Florist for around 15 years, enough time to have adjusted to meet requests like these, but only a chip in the shop’s long history: The family business has been running for over 99 years, since it was opened back in 1913. “Yeah,” he laughs, a sudden chuckle, “a long time, isn’t it?”

When the shop first opened, he says, it sold produce along with its flowers. Customers loved corsages of scented petals—one of the most popular items back then—and much of their business occured before football games or on Sundays for church events.  In the seventies, the shop separated into two locations for more space, with the florist still based at Brattle Street. Zedros explains that, because the work is so labor-intensive, the business decided to pursue their flowers alone, turning their attention to their location within Harvard Square.

“We have all these flowers out here,” Zedros says, pointing at the rows and rows of roses, sunflowers, and orchids, stacked on different shelves, only leaving a thin aisle’s worth of empty space in the middle of the store, “but no one thinks about how long it takes to get them out.”

Working 13-hour days, Zedros and his family and friends who work at the shop typically begin making phone calls around 7:00 a.m. to confirm orders and shipment deliveries, and arrive at the shop at eight to start preparing for the day. Today’s shipment, around 20 boxes of flowers, took five hours to fully prepare. The process involves unpacking, stripping stems of foliage, cutting and placing them in water with solution, and refrigerating around half of the flowers, which will not be immediately sold. The 7:00 p.m. closing time is “only a technicality,” Zedros says. He doesn’t usually get out of the store until around two hours later.

This, of course, excludes the holidays during which business explodes: graduation, Mothers’ Day, or Valentine’s Day, when lines have grown out the door until they reached Crema Café, a few businesses down the road. Delivery requests increase 10 times on Feb. 14, so work hours are extended from 6:30 a.m. until around 10:00 p.m. that night.

Zedros, a tall, friendly man whose brown eyes echo the warm atmosphere of the shop, sort of fell into this business. He attended college at Boston University, and started working at the shop after graduating when he sensed it needed some help. Before him, his uncle Ted Gomatos—he gestures toward the back of a shop, where Gomatos is presumably working—was a manager. Zedros’ mother, Catie, who shuffles past the counter wearing a jacket and a winter hat (“Oh, I’m freezing!” she tells the customer she’s helping), has been working on and off at the florist for 60 years. Zedros learned the trade “by eye,” he says: “A lot of people go to school for this,” but not him. He notes a customer who is looking impatient to leave. “Tommy, she’s in a rush!”

Tommy appears from the curved staircase that leads upstairs, where ribbons and wrappings emerge from over the banister, and the more intricate flower arrangements are designed, to help the appreciative customer.

“Sorry,” Zedros continues, smiling. “You were asking?” He is cut off once again by a man, grinning, who who carries a huge bouquet of flowers out of the shop: “How in the world am I going to carry all these?”

A staple of Harvard Square, and perhaps one of the only locales that reflects its fading authenticity, Brattle Square Florist has a long list of regulars, plus a core group of around 20 customers that Zedros sees each week. During the recession, of course, these numbers went down, but Zedros says that they are rising once again. The most frequent visitors are the kind of people that want fresh flowers for their offices, then long-term customers like professors, even University President Drew Faust.

Occasionally there are the rarer guests that drop by during visits to Cambridge: senators, or the prince from Saudi Arabia who ordered his daughter’s name in roses, five feet high, for her sixteenth birthday. And even more elaborate requests, like that of another customer Zedros remembers, who ordered 10 deliveries of a dozen roses to the same address at half-hour intervals.

A phone is ringing somewhere, and Catie goes to answer it: Like old-fashioned landlines, it’s stuck onto a wall, almost lost among leaves and buds. Something about a wrong address, which both mother and son immediately work to correct.

For the future, when this team might not be able to work side by side, Zedros says he is considering finding a partner and placing more direct advertisements (for now, “We take out no ads.”) to keep up with other businesses and the demands of the Square. He does not know whether his own children, ages 12 and 14, will want to go into the family business but he does not seem concerned.

There are things that endure despite change: “The energy of the Square keeps you young,” Zedros says. “The Square never stops, so it’s always fun.” He talks about customers who come back for reunions, and being able to watch so many grow up—that, too, is one of his favorite aspects of running the flower shop.

It’s the same personal, face-to-face business that greets the many who do come back years later, to pick up a bouquet or two. “Wait,” Zedros could easily call out as you leave, as he does today. “Let me just wrap you up some roses.” Three, with white-petals and red edges that curl upward, are swiftly wrapped into white paper and handed over. “Take these with you,” he insists. “It’s no problem.”