Retiring florist witnessed ebb and flow of Hornell from windows of Doug's Flower Shop
For more than four decades, florist Mary Vance has had a front-row view to Hornell’s evolving business district while serving multiple generations of families during their happiest moments and most trying times.
Vance was hired full-time by Doug’s Flower Shop and Gifts at 162 Main St. in fall 1978, shortly after graduating from Alfred State College with an associate's degree in applied science and floriculture merchandising.
In a business district known for its frequent comings and goings, Vance is a rarity — she came and she stayed, even when the flower shop had a change in ownership in 2013.
Now, after 43 years as a Hornell florist, Vance, 65, is preparing to retire at the end of the year.
As one of Hornell's longest-tenured Main Street employees, Vance has been an unofficial ambassador for the business district, providing directions "a million" times, she joked, and advising out-of-towners looking for a specific store or a good place to eat.
Vance: "People come into the shop and they go, ‘The florist knows where everything is.’ So they do ask directions, it’s amazing, how many people have asked directions.
“It’s good to know your hometown because you can help people who are from out of town that come in and say, ‘I heard there is a really nice whatever.’ I know most of the streets, and which side of town they are on.”
Remaining in one job for 40-plus years is not typical for most Americans. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020 data, only about 3 out of 10 workers age 65 and over have been employed at the same place for 20 years or more. The median tenure is 10.3 years, and the average for these workers is 14.3 years.
Vance surprised herself by staying in one place for so long, but there are no regrets.
“We all have good days and bad days in whatever work you are doing.” Vance said. “(But) I think if you are doing something that you love and enjoy and you take pleasure in making other people happy by what you are doing, stick with it.”
'She knows their story'
“Mary has always been a hardworking employee and she is very dedicated to the floral industry,” said Becky Canfield, who with her husband, Dan, purchased the flower shop in 2013 from original owner Doug Gilbert. “She is very creative, great with customer service and definitely will be missed on Main Street as one of the staples, plus as one of our employees.”
Mayor John Buckley, a life-long Hornell resident, said Vance’s 43-year tenure at a downtown business puts her in “a very special category" and "elite company.”
“Employees like Mary are few and far between these days,” Buckley said. “Whether the business is new or has been around a long time, employees of Mary’s caliber are really the backbone of the business. The knowledge accumulated over time and connections made with community members are invaluable in so many ways.”
Vance said her job has included “just about everything” involving the floral business, from processing flowers when they are delivered, to creating the arrangements, to mapping out and even making deliveries.
Vance said she will miss helping customers and seeing their responses.
“I love seeing the reaction of people who come to buy flowers and how it makes them happy," she said. "It makes them happy buying them, and it makes the people that you deliver to happy."
“You have your favorites that come in and you become friends,” Vance continued. “Maybe not social friends but they are friends when they come in here. You know about their families. They will tell you about their kids and grandkids.
Sometimes she can’t help sharing in their emotions.
“We do birth to death flowers,” she said. “You get joyful occasions and you get very sad occasions and you try to be empathetic with the people who have had a death in the family. And sometimes you cry right along with them.”
Vance is popular with long-time patrons because “she knows their story,” Canfield said.
“We have several customers who may have lived here locally and then moved out of town and when they call (to order flowers) they speak to her,” Canfield noted.
A downtown in flux
When Vance began working at Doug’s, Hornell’s shopping district was a destination point; an area where shoppers could find almost everything they needed.
“People came downtown for a reason,” she said. “We had shoe stores, several clothing stores, men’s stores. We had a stationary store and a Hallmark store. Basically everything was full.”
During that period, Main Street shoppers could also visit two drug stores, three jewelers and the three-story Tuttle and Rockwell building’s full department store.
It was a time before a great number of large retail chains began setting up on the city's outskirts, Vance explained.
“It was a draw to come downtown because all of the main stores were here,” Vance said. “Every Thursday night we were open until 8:30. Over the years we backed it off as more outlying areas developed and people were not coming downtown.”
Hornell was not alone in seeing a Main Street exodus.
According to Census Statistics of U.S. Businesses, small businesses employed over half of American workers in the 1980s and 1990s, but by 2107, just 47% of private-sector employees worked at a small establishment.
The Washington Post noted the coronavirus made a tough situation worse, reporting in a May 12, 2020 article that more than 100,000 small businesses closed forever due to the pandemic.
The newspaper said the closings are especially problematic in smaller towns where a store or restaurant closing can lead more to follow.
“Downtown has always been slowly changing and evolving,” said Buckley. “It was much different during my parents’ childhood years compared to mine and the same can be said today. Downtown will continue to evolve in the near future as the Downtown Revitalization Initiative projects start coming online.”
Hornell made headlines across the state in fall 2019 when the city was named the Southern Tier’s recipient of $10 million DRI award. Local officials predicted the money would be a “game-changer” for the city’s downtown.
While the pandemic delayed the process, Hornell’s DRI projects will include a mix of public and private efforts to create new downtown apartment units, upgrade commercial space, boost technology education and help downtown property owners make improvements.
Vance is bullish on the future.
“A lot has changed but we have been in the same building. I think the store will continue and be successful. I think with Alstom here, that’s very helpful because we have people coming to the area,” she said.
The language of flowers
Vance has seen the sweet and the strange from her front-row view onto Hornell's downtown.
“One thing that is fun is watching the kids from St. Ann’s Academy and it used to be St. Ann’s School, walk by the shop,” Vance said. “And daycare kids come by."
As for the off-beat, all she can say is, "Just people, doing strange things. I can’t even elaborate. You will be like, ‘Did you see that?’”
Vance has adapted to the trends in floral design, including a move away from water oasis presentations that were more prevalent earlier in her career to a much greater reliance on vase arrangements in the later years.
The shop also added tuxedo rentals to the business.
"Weddings have changed too, with more hand-tied bouquets. It’s more freestyle today instead of more structured arrangements," she said.
Vance is taking a wait-and-see approach to her retirement. At this point, she has no definite plans "aside from taking it easy for a little bit" and spending time with her nieces, nephews and siblings.
“I do like to travel, so I do hope to do some traveling. I would love to go back to Ireland but I don’t know if that will ever happen,” she added.
Vance mentioned her favorite flower is the iris. In the language of flowers, iris symbolism depends on the color. Yellow irises symbolize passion, purple irises symbolize wisdom, blue irises symbolize faith and hope.
It's not really about the symbolism for Vance, although the iris seems to suit her career as a Hornell florist very well.
"I don’t have a reason why (they are my favorite)," she said. I have always liked iris from when I was a little kid. Purple, white, all different colors, no matter the colors."
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