40 Years Later, Family’s Flower Business Still in Full Bloom

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Wednesday, August 7, 2019, 7:22 am
Sarah Spohn

B/A Florist, situated at the southwest corner of East Grand River Avenue and Hagadorn Road,
is celebrating its 40th anniversary of business this year. (Photos by Raymond Holt)

The landscape on Grand River Avenue certainly has changed over the past four decades, especially the farther east you travel from downtown East Lansing. While additions include traffic lanes and new, large retailers, losses have included small, locally owned businesses, eateries and mom-and-pop shops.

One retailer that has managed to survive, and thrive, focuses on the living: fresh flowers, to be precise.

Barb (Barbara Ann, hence the business name) Hollowick started B/A Florist, which originally opened in Okemos in June 1979. Today her daughter, Laura “Laurie” Van Ark, runs the flower shop. Van Ark has been around since the beginning, growing up in the shop, but almost retired in 2012.

As big box stores have been gradually introduced to the area, the need for local businesses to remain relevant is seemingly at a high. Van Ark said the biggest changes have been what the larger retailers offer in their fresh cut flower sections.

“That would change what people come to us for,” Van Ark said. “They do come to us for some more specialized things. It’s encouraged us to change, and be a little more unique. So much of what we do is customized.”

With the introduction of online flower delivery sites, and big box stores offering cash-and-carry flower options, the availability and accessibility of flowers have increased. Many customers, however, still prefer face-to-face interaction, help in arranging flowers, industry knowledge, and an entire local business community network.

One thing that has remained constant throughout the years is the business’ mission to be a close part of the families in the community. “Having gone through so many decades of business, we’ve seen families grow up, get married, and have kids,” Van Ark said. “It’s an honor to be a part of their lives.”

Three generations at B/A: Founder Barbara Hollowick (lower left), Olivia Van Ark (lower right, grandaughter to Barbara, daughter of Laurie Van Ark), sisters Cheryl Fountain (upper left) and Laurie Van Ark (upper right). Cheryl and Laurie are daughters of Barbara.

It's a family affair

It became even more evident just how much of an integral part B/A Florist is in many local families’ lives when Laurie considered stepping away from the floral business seven years ago. She was met with many loyal customers coming forward, and declaring their appreciation and acknowledgment of the business.

“We have a handful of people who say, ‘We’re so glad you’re still here, don’t go away, and don’t think we don’t love having you here.’ The outpouring of those sentiments from the community really were priceless,” Laurie said.

“There’s days where you’re thinking, ‘I’m like an ant competing against the Goliath.’ I will never be able to beat Meijer, Sam’s Club, or Whole Foods prices,” she added. “They have an enormous distribution channel — but what we do is so specialized. We hope there are still enough people who care about that.”

For some customers, any monumental life event meant visiting B/A Florist. The staff has bonded with families by providing their products for holidays, birthdays, weddings, funerals, and celebrations of life. For a particular close-knit family which Laurie and her dozen or so B/A colleagues have worked with over the span of 25 to 30 years, it was all of these occasions.

Steve Stoner, head designer at B/A.

The business, currently housed in a beautiful 90-year-old home, has also opened its doors to volunteers, in a therapeutic sense.

“People always say, ‘I love just coming in here, it makes me feel better,’ ” Van Ark said. She’s invited customers suffering from physical ailments like cancer, into the shop to spend time around the various flowers and plants. “It was amazing to see the transformation … she had the biggest smile, you could just feel the joy coming out of her. I wish there was a way to take this, and use it to help people like that – on a larger scale.”

In a sort of holistic healing, being around living plants helped many people who were going through loss, or thoughts of death – change their mindset. It’s a responsibility to help people that brings feelings of pride, and also responsibility to B/A Florist employees.

“We take it seriously, so there is responsibility — because these are some of the happiest and saddest times,” Van Ark said. “I can’t help but look at it like if this was me in someone else’s shoes. It is heavy duty, but it’s what life is all about — in my opinion.”

A view from the top floor of the 90-year-old home that houses B/A.

Owner wonders what if ...

Life could have been very different if Van Ark had not accepted her mother’s temporary offer to join the family business after having graduated from Michigan State University.

“There were many years where I wondered how life would have been different had I gone into that corporate world,” Van Ark said. “As I got older, I started to see the priceless value of the things that I had because of being here.”

The recession hit B/A Florist hard, but Van Ark said the business is better than it has been in quite some time – in the midst of the busy summer wedding season. However, with local large retailers popping up just down the road, local businesses’ sales and growth are ultimately at risk.

“Each time people purchase flowers from the grocery store, that inevitably puts us a little bit closer to the demise of the small business,” Van Ark said. “Because if people are only going to come here for a wedding or a funeral, what happens all the rest of the year?”

B/A Florist will hopefully continue for another 40 years, if Van Ark has anything to say about it. Her daughter, the third generation – is now working on bouquet arrangements for customers, continuing on with family tradition.

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