Family is never far from Mark G. Jones’ thoughts.
But then, most days he is surrounded by their memories – as he now owns the store his great-grandfather Don Saville opened in 1942. Saville wanted to bring beautiful flowers to the people who lived in Evanston.
Saville initially worked for another florist, Charlie London of London’s Flower Shop, then took over the business in 1942.
“The store was in an iconic location, being next to the historic Marshall Field’s department store and Varsity Movie Theatre,” Jones explained in an email. “Downtown Evanston was really a destination shopping area for so many surrounding suburbs for decades before Old Orchard and mall culture changed brick and mortar retailing in the 1980s.”
After Saville died in 1970, his daughter Donna Tennison and her husband George took over the business, which passed to their daughters, Booie Burton and Gail Tennison Jones in 1986. Mark Jones, Gail’s son, has been running the business since 2016.
Mark Jones’ grandparents met at the florist shop, as did his parents. He learned how to run the business and design floral arrangements from his mother, whose presence is still affectionately remembered by the store’s many loyal customers. At Saturday’s celebration, Gail Jones was treated like royalty by longstanding and new customers alike. More than one guest mentioned that they came to the celebration especially to see her.
One of the longtime friends who stopped by to celebrate and catch up with Gail Jones was Nancy Price, 87, and her granddaughter Nicole King. Price described herself as “someone who used to do business with Gail.”
Also in attendance: Amy Heytow, Mark Jones’ former babysitter. Heytow showed photos to prove it, saying she has known Jones since he was 15 months old. She would come to the store either to pick him up or drop him off, she said, and has been a friend of the family for decades.
Chris Greene, a renowned local jazz musician, is one of Saville’s delivery drivers. He entertained the crowd Saturday and played saxophone with his group, the Chris Greene Jazz Quartet. In the back of the store there were snacks, cold drinks and an array of empanadas from 5411 Empanadas on Davis Street followed by a beautiful birthday cake – festooned with flowers, of course.
For Jones, the business is about more than just flowers. It’s all about the people who allow him to share in the momentous moments of their lives.
“My mom really instilled in me the value of the customer experience,” he said. “It really is all that we have, and that’s what keeps people coming back. All of life’s greatest celebrations and most important events have flowers there. The birth of a baby, anniversaries, weddings or especially somebody’s sympathy and tributes. They all have flowers.”
Jones is the chief decision-maker at one of the oldest continuously family-run businesses in Evanston and he is involved in every aspect of the business, yet he deals with vendors, employees and everyone else in a relaxed manner.
During an hourlong conversation on Tuesday, Oct. 18, in advance of Saturday afternoon’s celebration, Jones interacted with his team, directed a delivery person arriving with a large order and seamlessly answered a reporter’s questions, never letting on that he was preparing for an interview with WGN-TV Channel 9 News taking place in the shop about 30 minutes later. He never raised his voice, got flustered or seemed rushed.
COVID ‘allowed us more time to build out our website’
The pandemic was a challenging time for his business. Once the store was allowed to reopen, Jones said he had to put his six part-time employees on temporary leave. For a time, he and his manager Sarah did everything – taking orders, designing bouquets and arrangements and making deliveries.
But there was a bright side: “It allowed us a better opportunity to kind of re-examine how our business works, especially being a brick-and-mortar store. It allowed us more time to build out our website and build out our social media presence. It allowed us to reach a wider audience and in that sense, to own and just develop our skill sets,” Jones said.
The business received two federal Paycheck Protection Program loans totaling $43,000 in April 2020 and January 2021. Everyone placed on temporary leave was invited back and rehired for Mother’s Day 2020.
Saville started a monthly subscription program during the pandemic that is still going strong. “There’s such a senior community in Evanston … so many nursing homes and rehab centers around here and so many of the residents were locked in there, they couldn’t leave and see people for the whole year. So we would have so many monthly deliveries to them,” Jones said. “Some flowers for their anniversaries or their birthdays and just getting to make them feel special. You couldn’t go out to a restaurant to celebrate anything. So a lot of people sent more flowers. So then that felt really fun to get to be part of those celebrations.”
The florists at Saville pride themselves on their ability to use primarily locally sourced flowers in fresh and creative ways. Jones described their sweet spot within a crowded industry.
“We love to offer things that are made in-house,” he said. “We all get to find our creativity here. … Instagram is a new frontier for us. It allows us to display and showcase more of what we can do and more of a fresh, modern take on floral design. Hand-tied bouquets with a ‘wow’ factor are a specialty of ours.
“We have a really unique look and obviously, flowers being such a visual medium, you really need to be able to display the kind of stuff that you can do. That’s what gets people on board to shop, since flowers are a luxury sales product.”
Return of students boosted business
Saville Flowers’ business is evenly split between walk-in retail sales, online sales and special events like weddings, bridal showers and organizational celebrations and dinners. The florists work with Northwestern on a lot of different activities and really noticed the change when students came back in September this year.
“There were so many people walking in so much more often. It was really fun. I thought, ‘Whoa, this really hasn’t happened in like, three years,’” Jones said.
With so many businesses closing, the change in downtown Evanston is a concern, Jones said. There aren’t as many destination shopping areas. “We do feel so lucky, especially for [having] older customers that want to come in … they find parking and make it a special trip to come into the store and visit us,” he said, adding that his floral customers could “go to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods or Home Depot, but you go into the flower shop because you want to feel part of the community, and we try to really engage with our customers. And that makes all the difference.”
Jones makes a point to have Saville give back to the Evanston community, donating its labor for the Evanston Community Foundation’s annual fundraiser as well as contributing numerous silent auction items for various local organizations. Jones also sits on the Advocate Board for Chicago House, which helps provide housing for those living with HIV/AIDS, and Saville has supported its fundraisers.
Jones sounds excited about Saville’s future. “We actually just got a new landlord this year, Steve Rogan of JR Varsity LLC,” Jones said. “He just bought the building next door and would like to close off the alley and make it like a little European market. We have a really cool corner here, with the bookshop [Bookends & Beginnings] and Alley Gallery’s posters and stuff. It’s really fun.
“We are a nice little community, especially at the holidays and Christmastime when people can come shopping here, and we all do favors for each other all the time. And, you know, obviously we’ve all been neighbors a long time. That’s really wonderful.”
Looking ahead, Jones said, “There are a lot of new horizons and territory to cover. Our business can always be changing and I’m really trying to just optimize my time championing my staff so I can spend more time as a business owner and as a community member.”