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The holiday season is in full bloom at Saville Flowers, 1712 Sherman Ave. And like the glittering windcatchers that twirl in their store window, third-generation owners Gail Jones and Donna “Booie” Burton are in perpetual motion.
As they dart in and out of sight – wielding a watering can to tend potted poinsettias and cyclamen, grabbing a phone mounted above a work table littered with ribbons and trim, ducking into a refrigerator jammed with flowers and greens – the sisters provide good-natured commentary on the history and current state of the business they say is the second oldest in Evanston.
“Did we tell you how much we loved our grandfather?” asks Gail. Booie has already started to tell the story.
Don Saville was his granddaughters’ hero and inspiration. A lover of horticulture, he commuted for years from Maywood, Ill., to work at Charlie London’s, the Sherman Avenue flower shop he later made his own. Mr. Saville bought the business in 1941, say his granddaughters, and moved to Evanston with his wife and their only child, Donna.
In 1986, 45 years to the day after Mr. Saville purchased the shop, say granddaughters Gail and Booie, they bought it from their parents. For some 20 years afterwards, say Gail and Booie, two other sisters worked there as well.
The family fervor for flowers was no accident. Mr. Saville had planted and nurtured the seeds when Gail and Booie and their brother and three sisters were children. Their grandfather came to their Evanston home every Sunday afternoon to take the youngsters on an outing, say the sisters. Often the destination was a greenhouse, where he introduced his grandchildren to his beloved flowers by their scientific names. The Latin names have stuck with her to this day, Gail says.
Mr. Saville’s influence extended far beyond his Evanston shop, say Gail and Booie. He was active in Florists Telegraph Delivery Association, even serving as its president. “[FTD] was a big deal” back then, say the sisters. After its founding in 1910, the prestigious organization made it possible for customers to send bouquets to faraway friends for the first time.
“Everyone knew Don Saville,” says Gail, who witnessed the respect accorded him when he took the grandchildren to FTD conventions. When he died, a grief-stricken 11-year-old Booie was awed by the blanket of gardenias that covered the casket and the “thousands of people” who gathered from around the country for the three-day wake and funeral, she says.
A few years later, thanks to a surplus of academic credits she transferred from Rosary to Evanston Township High School, Booie could take the few classes she needed and still work full time at the shop. For 22 years she ran the Saville greenhouse in Wilmette, now closed. Though Gail worked at the Evanston shop on holidays and Saturdays through her teen years, it was not until after college and some years as an ESL teacher that she returned to the business after recognizing that “my passion is flowers.”
The sisters remember holidays when florists were the only source for flowers, before plants sprang up in every grocery and home store. They recall the year Saville filled 884 orders the week of Mother’s Day, when there were “lines out the door and four people calling out FTD orders in the back.” Valentine’s Days are hectic but not lucrative holidays and far from the highlight of their year, they say. Since wholesale prices triple, profit eludes those trying to keep consumer prices reasonable.
While they no longer work nights making the Christmas wreaths for all the local buildings and crafting the likes of terrariums for 125 employees of Evanston businesses, the sisters say they offer quality and service customers will not find at the superstore.
“People say, ‘Your flowers lasted three times as long,’” says Gail. “There are many grades of flowers; you get what you pay for.” The sisters take pride in educating their customers about how to care for flowers and plants so they last.
Roses, they say, must be cut on an angle with a sharp knife and plunged into warm water, which will rise all the way to the top of the stem and help the flower stand straight. Holiday favorites cyclamen and poinsettias both thrive in soil that dries out completely before being watered. Cyclamen plants should be watered around the edges so as not to drown the buds that form in the center of the crown, says Gail.
Customers benefit from vast changes in the growing of flowers, say the sisters. Not only are seasonal varieties available year round, they say, but they are much improved. The two recall the California roses of yore, bent “like the figure 7.” Today’s Ecuadorean roses, they say, not only have much stronger stems, but they grow straight and tall toward the ever-high equatorial sun.
The sisters have watched flower-arranging styles change, too; they cite the trend toward using multiple small arrangements instead of one long one on the holiday table.
In December, says Booie, the shop is awash in “all the things [such as pine cones and lights and ornaments] we don’t use the rest of the year,” and she and Gail have the expertise to incorporate them to advantage.
They have lowered prices to reflect the economy and have ideas for ways to break out of a holiday rut without breaking the bank. Booie says she favors all-green arrangements for the holidays. Fromboxwood cuttings she fashions trees that last indefinitely, she says, and can be dressed up for Christmas dinner with roses or less traditionally, orchids or hydrangeas.
Though adapted to the changing times, Don Saville’s legacy is alive in his eponymous shop. It is uncertain whether the fourth generation will have an interest in the flower business. But Booie just returned from Colorado and the birth of Mr. Saville’s great-great granddaughter, Lucy Saville Roth.