“My business is feelings - 100% feelings,” Gary Callgreen says of his work at 70-year-old Preston’s Florist, his family has owned since 1981.                       RoundTable photo

It took a special dictionary to decode the meaning of a floral bouquet in the Victorian era. “Talking bouquets” – small nosegays called tussie-mussies – used floriography, the language of flowers, to convey messages that could not be spoken aloud in society. Maidenhair fern, for example, meant “secret bond of love”; jonquils denoted “desire.”

For 70 years, a succession of florists at Preston’s Flowers and Gifts, 1726 Central St., has created floral arrangements that speak the sender’s mind without requiring a dictionary.

There have been shifts in the occasions for which customers order flowers, says Gary Callgreen, whose family has owned the shop since 1981. Long gone are the Easter corsage and boutonniere, disappeared with the habit of dressing up for church, he guesses. Thanksgiving “is not what it used to be,” he says, a trend he ascribes to “more people travel[ing]” than staying home. Mother’s Day is still their biggest event, followed by Valentine’s Day. Christmas is “the longest,” he says, what with corporate gifts (often in quantity) added to holiday décor.     

But though much has changed since the shop was founded, the emphasis on customer service has remained. It began with Jim Preston. One of his original drivers described him to Mr. Callgreen as “a fantastic guy” who lived in the neighborhood and “went out of his way to help people.”

Mr. Callgreen is also one to go the extra mile. He says he once filled an order for a “Yesterday” bouquet: he took the blame for a distraught customer who had forgotten a birthday, telling the recipient the shop was at fault for the delay.

At a time when he still had business calls forwarded to his cell phone, he answered a ring at 10:30 one night. The desperate caller needed flowers for a funeral at 8:30 the next morning. Could he help?

He explained that there would be no time to get flowers from the wholesaler. They would have to use what was left in the cooler. On his way to the shop the next morning, Mr. Callgreen had an accident. But driving a mangled car unable to turn right, he made it in time to deliver flowers to the funeral. “People think [being a florist] is easy,” he says. “But there is a lot of pressure and a lot of time constraints.”           

Along with the standard orders, he recalls some unusual requests. One customer ordered a bouquet of dead flowers. Another sent flowers in lieu of the customary relationship-ending “Dear John” letter.

Florists play a part in the high points of their customers’ lives – births, graduations, engagements, weddings, promotions, moves, illnesses. “My business is feelings – 100% feelings,” Mr. Callgreen says – feelings to which the florist is not immune. Although he has seen most everything, he says, “Some stories blow us away.”

He was, for example, unable to do any arrangements on Sept. 11. He was also devastated when friends of one of his friends died in a fire. He had grown close to the family, marking each stage of their lives with flowers. When they died, he says, all he knew was what to send: red roses.

Mr. Callgreen first came to work at Preston’s when they needed a driver and he was out of a job. He and Julie Heinz started in the shop the same year and learned the art of flower arranging from “a really good designer” at the shop, he says. Because Mr. Callgreen had a background in the arts, including painting, sculpture and ceramics, he says he “was able to pick it up easily.”

Probably the most radical change he has witnessed is the globalization of the floral industry. For much of the 20th century, florists like Preston’s bought flowers from wholesale greenhouses in Evanston. The local greenhouses are gone, but the world is Preston’s marketplace. They purchase flower staples directly from growers in Ecuador, Holland and Africa and source special things from out-of-town wholesalers. The shop gets fresh flowers every day, which ensures that they are long-lasting.

Access to flowers from around the globe means Preston’s can grant wishes that once seemed farfetched. “If you order ahead and pay, I can get lilies of the valley all year,” Mr. Callgreen says, adding, “It’s always spring somewhere in the world.”

A helium shortage has driven the price of filling up one of their 500-some balloons by six times. But Preston’s has unlimited ideas for other non-floral gifts. They put together gift baskets of cheese or locally baked cookies or junk food for college kids. They deliver to all of Chicago and 160 suburbs and are confident they have the ability please their customers.

“Give us enough time, and we can do anything,” Mr. Callgreen says.