Elfrieda's Flowers, one of the few remaining original tenants at Charlotte's Park Road Shopping Center, plans to close its doors for good at the end of the month.
The 52-year-old shop has served generations of local residents, for babies and funerals, birthdays and hospital stays. But the economic crisis and big-box competition convinced owners Richard Lisenby and Ben D'Agostino that it was time to move on.
So, on Wednesday morning, they hung red-and-white banners announcing “Retirement sale – everything must go.” And it wasn't long before customers, mostly older women, began stopping in, curious about the store's fate.
“Are you going out of business?” asked Mary Jane Ellington, 66, of Charlotte. “I just saw that sign. You've been here forever.”
“It's very hard to close a business that has been here this long,” Lisenby told her.
“I hate to see you go,” Ellington said. The store, she says, has long been her first choice for flowers because of its service and reputation.
However, business has been declining for about the past two years, Lisenby said, and amid the economic downturn he and D'Agostino decided that the daily struggles they faced were no longer worth it.
As with many other small businesses, Lisenby said, the ascendance of big-box stores has made it difficult to compete. Large chains, he said, buy flowers in bulk and sell them at discount prices, sometimes for less than smaller retailers pay for their stock in the first place. In addition, flowers have become a luxury item in today's economy, he said.
The store's original owner, Elfrieda Madden, had worked at other florists in town, including Roy White's and Ratcliffe's, before starting her own business. A hard worker, she was dedicated until the end, said Jerry Wadsworth of Indian Trail, who worked at the store under Madden and then bought it following her death in the early 1970s. In 1997, Wadsworth said, he sold the shop to Lisenby, who had worked there in the early 1980s.
In addition to flowers, the store has also long sold gifts, many of which wouldn't be out of place in a ladylike grandmother's living room. Formal clocks, fancy plates and vases, stuffed animals, Christmas ornaments and collectible lighthouses sit on glass shelves. All jewelry and gifts are now on sale.
Harriette Thomas, a Charlotte retiree, said she remembered when the shopping center opened, and that Elfrieda's was there. Wednesday, she stopped in and bought a hummingbird ornament and a glossy ivory-colored dish with gold trim – some “little things,” she said, to remind her of the shop over the years.
“It's just one of those sad things to see go,” she said. “That's where people go to get their arrangements. Richard is wonderful at that.”
The store's owners say they'll miss customers the most, serving them at times of birth, death and great happiness. One bride-to-be, Lisenby said, remarked that Elfrieda's had provided flowers for her mother's wedding decades ago.
Lisenby, 62, entered the floral business at age 13, arranging flowers at a family friend's store in his hometown of Norwood, in Stanly County. Except for a brief stint flipping burgers as a teenager, he's been at it ever since. And even if the store is closing, he plans to stick with it. He's aiming to find a part-time floral job and also spend more time with his elderly parents. “I guess you could say it's the heart of my life,” he said. “It's what I love doing. … I'm not ready to quit being a designer yet. I'm just turning a new leaf.”
The closing leaves Roland's Salon as the only original small business at the center, at the corner of Park and Woodlawn roads. The post office and drugstore have also been there all along, though the drugstore began as an Eckerd and has recently become Rite Aid.
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