If one were to ask the average Somerville resident under 40 to describe Davis Square, words like “trendy,” “busy” and “expensive” would be used before anything else. Although there’s no contesting the neighborhood’s current status as certifiably hip, 59-year-old Joyce McKenzie of Nellie’s Wildflowers remembers a not-so-distant time when the local business landscape was dramatically different. When seeking a storefront for her flower shop, which opened its doors in April 1990, the Somerville native chose the inconspicuous spot at 72 Holland St. simply because rent was cheap.
“When we opened here, it was a very depressed area,” McKenzie said. “Davis Square was not even close to what it is now. Most of the small businesses were actually closing and moving out.”
Loretta Hight, another Somerville native and six-year employee of Nellie’s, chimed in, “All there was in the square was the movie theater!”
Located just past the Davis Square entrance to the Red Line, opposite the street from Dave’s Fresh Pasta, the Nellie’s Wildflowers of today offers loose-cut bouquets starting at $5 up to large arrangements for weddings and funerals that approach $400. McKenzie hand-picks her flowers from markets in Boston and Chelsea, and in summers has them sourced directly from Halstead Farm in Fitchburg, Mass. The store even offers delivery for arrangements over $50 and is an altogether affordable option for most looking to buy flowers in the area. But offering fresh bouquets at a reasonable price isn’t enough to keep the doors open, not in 2018.
“Flower shops are closing more often than they’re opening,” McKenzie said. “The whole landscape has changed because of the internet.”
As the demographics of those who live and work around the flower shop have gotten wealthier, younger and busier in its 28 years, the internet and the rise of e-commerce have also made it more challenging to attract customers. When sites like FTD, 1-800 Flowers and Bouqs can promise next-day delivery on last-minute bouquets for anniversaries and holidays, how can a three-employee shop like Nellie’s compete?
It comes down to good-old-fashioned customer service.
Named in honor of McKenzie’s late maternal grandmother, a Scottish immigrant with a green thumb and an eye for design, Nellie’s promises this sense of family and history from the moment a customer walks through their door. McKenzie takes pains to learn every regular customer’s name, even though the shop receives a tremendous amount of foot traffic from commuters and sees new visitors almost daily. She prides herself on building relationships with her customers, and she’ll stop what she’s doing to arrange a $5 bouquet for someone who doesn’t know a peony from a daffodil.
The Nellie’s Wildflowers Facebook page, with its perfect five-star average rating, is a microcosm of this warm, familial ecosystem. There, customers new and old gush about their love for McKenzie, her staff and their work.
“If you are looking for something unique and beautiful, Joyce is the person you want to contact,” one reviewer exclaimed.
Another, Salem State University graduate student Yasi Abdolmohammadi, explained that she used to live in Davis Square and would regularly bring her own Mason jar in for a small bouquet. She still travels back on occasion, just to visit McKenzie and pick up some flowers.
“The staff is so pleasant, and the environment is so welcoming,” Abdolmohammadi told the Daily in an email. “My visits to Nellie’s are what I miss the most about living in Davis.”
McKenzie feels that this face-to-face quality is what gives Nellie’s an edge over huge e-commerce flower sites.
“We can’t compete with online purveyors, we just can’t,” she said. “We need to be all about the service.”
According to Hight, the positive relationships they’ve built at Nellie’s go beyond those with individuals, and extend to other local businesses like George L. Doherty’s Funeral Service. In order to accommodate the large number of walk-in visitors and “interruptions” to a day of arranging, Nellie’s has scaled back their arrangements for events and private functions, but Doherty’s continues to act like a partner, recommending Nellie’s to those mourning loved ones.
With fewer flower shops in Davis now than in the early days of Nellie’s business, local competition is not a major concern to McKenzie. Rather, other flower and gift shops in the area have also built reciprocal relationships with Nellie’s, with each recommending business to the other depending on a customer’s needs.
“We know the girls in the square that have gift shops and great cards,” Hight explained. “It’s a great community, so we try to send business to each other. There are a lot of small, women-owned businesses that have supported us, and we want to do the same.”
McKenzie, a nursing college dropout, doesn’t regret any part of the journey that brought her to Nellie’s.
“You’re not going to make a million dollars, but it’s a love,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and I still love what I do. That makes me happy.”