A longtime Naperville flower shop is struggling to survive -- along with the American dream

  • Jenny Latham is struggling to pay the $3,800 monthly rent for her shop, Celidan Creations Florist. Her mom Karin Jacobs, who founded the store in 1992, passed away last month.

    Jenny Latham is struggling to pay the $3,800 monthly rent for her shop, Celidan Creations Florist. Her mom Karin Jacobs, who founded the store in 1992, passed away last month. Washington Post

 
 
Updated 5/27/2020 10:18 AM

Florists dream of spring, when shops burst in a colorful riot of blooms while ledgers pool in black ink. First Communions, Palm Sunday, Easter, proms, charity events, weddings, more weddings and the flowery grail of Mother's Day.

But spring has been brutal for Jenny Latham, owner of Celidan Creations Florist in Naperville.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Flowers are a luxury dependent on the health of other businesses. Ordinarily, Celidan, founded in 1992 by Latham's mother, Karin Jacobs, supplies churches, restaurants and corporate offices in the city of almost 150,000, west of Chicago. All were closed due to covid-19. Celidan's front door locked, too. The shop remained open to phone and online orders and was permitted to make deliveries for what has become known in the industry as ring-and-run.

Celidan was open for Mother's Day but took in only $20,000, half of last year's bounty.
Celidan was open for Mother's Day but took in only $20,000, half of last year's bounty. - Washington Post

Florists are there to celebrate life's memorable moments. Celidan's schedule had been loaded with the promise of bouquets, boutonnieres, corsages and table arrangements. In a normal year, the shop does 40 weddings, multiple proms. All proms were canceled. The weddings, reduced to 22 and requiring only a $200 deposit, keep being pushed back later into this year and the next.

April brought few big events, except death.

Including Jacobs, who died April 7 of colon cancer at age 74.

Now, Celidan is in danger of dying, too. Last April, in the before times, Celidan grossed $35,000. Last month's receipts totaled $6,000, "mostly because of funerals," Latham says. The monthly rent is $3,800.

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"The whole town loved her," she says of her mother. "People keep asking, 'Are you going to keep it running?' " And she begins to cry.

The pandemic and ensuing public health restrictions have destroyed more than 100,000 small businesses so far. Embracing risk, becoming your own boss and executing a distinct vision are part of the American dream. The shuttering of a small business shreds jobs, destroys security and flattens commercial districts. A vacant store is an eyesore and a well of heartache. It represents the death of someone's fervent aspiration.

Inside the shop, there's no tape to keep customers six feet apart because, Jenny Latham says, "frankly, we're not that busy."
Inside the shop, there's no tape to keep customers six feet apart because, Jenny Latham says, "frankly, we're not that busy." - Washington Post

Jacobs, an exuberant woman born in Remscheid, Germany, launched the floral department in the grocery where she worked but dreamed of her own shop. Her daughter, who went to school for education, shared her vision. The cozy store is decorated in natural colors, starburst pendants dangling from the ceiling, with gifts interspersed among the plants.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Celidan is located in Naperville Plaza, a strip mall at the corner of Gartner and Washington, home to Oswald's Pharmacy (established 1875) and Casey's Foods (opened in 1969, celebrated for its meat market), the sort of entities that help make Naperville Naperville. Sure, there's a Trader Joe's -- Celidan stopped stocking orchids because it couldn't compete with a $15 phalaenopsis -- but the country has more than 500 Trader Joe's, each one featuring Hawaiian-shirted employees, wood decorating accents and too many frozen dumpling options.

Then again, five decades ago, Trader Joe's was also a small business.

For years, the city magazine tapped Celidan -- a mash-up of the three original employees' middle names -- as Naperville's second-best florist, tied with another. Did this bother Jacobs? Not at all.

"That was something she was so proud of with so many florists in town!" Latham wrote in her mother's death notice. Being crowned the best became a goal.

"Karin's death hit everyone so hard. It's like losing a member of the family," says Carol Gallagher, a customer of 25 years who hired Celidan for her three daughters' weddings.

Lathamsays she didn't qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program loan because her mother is still listed as president of the corporation. Though she's the named beneficiary of the business, Latham doesn't yet hold enough of a stake to secure the funds.

"The whole town loved her," Jenny Latham says of her mother. "People keep asking, 'Are you going to keep it running?'"
"The whole town loved her," Jenny Latham says of her mother. "People keep asking, 'Are you going to keep it running?'" - Washington Post

To keep the business open, she decided to seek $15,000 through GoFundMe. "You worry what people will think because it seems a site for nonprofits," she says. These days, Celidan is hardly profitable.

"I have made so many personal calls to let people know of her passing while the virus has paused our business," Latham wrote in her solicitation. "We are trying to navigate the rules of small businesses opening in the next months as well as grieve the loss of Karin."

In just over a month, she has raised less than a seventh of her goal.

Larger, more established florists are also hurting. Chuck Knoll is part of the fifth generation to run Walter Knoll Florist, an institution since the 1880s, with six locations in the St. Louis area. He's working with half of his regular staff of 100, a fifth of them family, including the sixth generation.

Revenue has been more than halved. In the beginning of the pandemic, a quarter of the income came from funerals. "Florists are very entrepreneurial people. They have to reinvent themselves. It took 2 1/2 years to get back after 9/11," he says. "But I don't see us recovering in the near future."

With the lifting of restrictions, Celidan opened its doors in time for Mother's Day, when almost a third of U.S. residents purchase flowers, according to the Society for American Florists. The holiday represents a quarter of all annual florist sales.

Latham, 50, a mother of three and married to a postal worker, labored from 7 a.m. to midnight Friday and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday with a reduced staff of three designers, including herself. She was forced to turn away orders.

"As busy as we seemed," Latham says, and her voice trails off. The shop took in $20,000, half of last year's bounty.

There's hand sanitizer on the counter. There's no tape to keep customers six feet apart because, she says, "frankly, we're not that busy." Latham increased the store's presence online, where she sells garden gnomes and other statuary.

"As her daughter and employee throughout, it is a big goal to come back strong," Latham wrote of her momin her GoFundMe plea. "If we find the economy has bounced back and we are doing better, we will donate any extra money in the fund to a charity in Karin's name. Thank you so much for the support. We enjoy being your local florist."

Gallagher, her loyal customer, says, "I hope they weather the storm because it would really be tough to lose your mother and the business she built." Her son made sure to purchase her Mother's Day arrangement from Celidan, of purple liatris, pink lilies, yellow tulips, gerbera daisies and daisy poms.

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