Small independent retailers have enough challenges without adding “pandemic” or “civil unrest” to their list. But Lee’s Flower and Card Shop, a third-generation institution on U Street in Washington, D.C. — once known as the city’s “Black Broadway” — has stayed strong through many challenges, from a changing neighborhood to all the uncertainties of 2020.
People want to support Black businesses during this time of protest against systemic racism. And the floral industry has fared well during the pandemic, says co-owner and president Stacie Lee Banks, 57.
“People are trying to make their apartments, condominiums and homes beautiful with flowers and plants,” she says.
When protests erupted after the police killing of George Floyd, Stacie and her sister and co-owner, Kristie Lee Jones, 49, put up a sign saying, “Black Owned Business.”
“The CVS next door got looted, but we got bypassed,” says Kristie, the vice president.
In hanging the sign, the sisters were following in the footsteps of their father, Richard “Rick” Lee, 77.
“Dad told us that in the 1968 riots, he wrote ‘Soul Brother’ on the window,” says Kristie.
“The whole city was burning, there was black smoke all over, people looting stores,” Rick recalls of the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “We stayed in the store all night with a shotgun.” Luckily, the Lees’ business remained unscathed.
The Lees note that a diverse group of citizens have participated in the George Floyd protests.
“There were so many different races and nationalities marching that it made it so much more meaningful and impactful,” Stacie says.
Rooted in the community
Lee’s Flower and Card Shop was founded in 1945 by Rick’s parents, William and Winnifred Lee, who started the business with $100 and a vision to spread joy through flowers. But in 1945, white-owned banks weren’t lending to Black would-be entrepreneurs. The Lees turned to Industrial Bank, a Black-owned institution founded by the Mitchell family in 1934 and still a bedrock of finance in the Black business community.
In 1968, William and Winnifred needed more space after acquiring a neighborhood card store. Kristie believes that if they hadn’t bought their building, the business probably wouldn’t have survived. Her grandparents had barely signed the papers on the sale when the 1968 race riots broke out.
“We’ve always been part of the fabric of the community,” Rick says. “My parents were, I have been, and now Stacie and Kristie have taken it to another level.”
The two sisters bought their father out in 2012, though Rick still comes in to help and advise. Stacie and Kristie are the shop’s sole owners but are discussing expanding ownership among the family.
Rick was William and Winnifred Lee’s only child. He hadn’t planned to be a florist, but after six years in the Peace Corps, William asked him to come into the business. Rick realized that if he didn’t, there would not be a Lee’s Flower Shop in the future. Marie, his ex-wife, also once worked in the store, as did her own mother.
The store has roughly 15 employees today, including non-family. Many Lee family members pitch in part-time in addition to their regular jobs. They include Stacie and Kristie’s brother, William P. Lee II; Stacie’s husband, Jeffrey Banks; and Kristie’s husband, JaJaun Jones, who all help make deliveries during busy times.
Fourth-generation family members are William II’s daughter, LeChe’ Lee, 34, human resources consultant, who also works for the U.S. government; Stacie and Jeffrey’s daughter, Samarah Banks, 25, who works full-time at the shop as a floral designer and in sales; and Kristie’s daughter and son from her prior marriage, Joi and Chase Tyler, who work on special events. Mackenzie Pickett, a cousin, serves as marketing consultant and grant writer from her home in Ohio, where she works for GOJO Industries, makers of Purell hand sanitizer.
“It’s given that every member of our family intern at the shop,” says Stacie. They are encouraged, though not expected, to join the business.
“If you want your children to take over the business, bring them up in the business. If you’re spending a lot of time at the business, you’re not spending time at home. If you don’t include your kids, you won’t see them,” says Rick bluntly.
“Let them know there’s a place for them if they want it. At 7 or 8, they can be sweeping floors — and learning that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.” It’s also good for them to make a little money for things they want, he says.
“We all had to start at the bottom,” says Samarah.
Stacie joined the business straight after graduating from Howard University, but Kristie worked for Verizon before joining.
Meeting customer demand
Before the pandemic, Stacie regularly organized small concerts at the shop, paying local musicians to perform. Kristie, meanwhile, created “pop-up shops” for local artisans to display and sell their wares. “They get our customers as well as their customers,” she says.
Stacie and Kristie also try to accommodate charitable requests from the community.
“Even though we didn’t start the business ourselves, we just speak on what our grandparents taught us,” says Kristie. Their niece LeChe’ points out that as the neighborhood has evolved, Lee’s has catered to a host of different nationalities, tastes and traditions.
When the pandemic hit, Lee’s closed to the public and laid off staff as business slowed to a trickle of orders that Stacie and Kristie fulfilled themselves. They alternated days in the store so they were never there at the same time and using only one driver per day. Stacie served on Washington’s reopening advisory committee, and she believes the city has done a good job of balancing safety and commerce.
Lee’s has received multiple government- or city-sponsored business grants and, most recently, applied for some small government grants to help businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Mother’s Day Lee’s began bringing staff back, and since June business has rocketed back, Stacie says. Customers can now step just a few feet into the shop to place an order, but not browse freely.
“We’ve coined a new phrase, ‘micro-weddings.’ People are still getting married and still want flowers. Now it’s a bridal bouquet and boutonniere and maybe two centerpieces, where before we were decorating a church and doing 15-20 centerpieces,” says Stacie. Lee’s even did a wedding on Black Lives Matter Plaza.
Funeral business also picked up. People want flowers even — especially—for a Zoom funeral.
“It’s been substantial enough to keep us going,” says Stacie.
Rick reminds his daughters that prayers and faith have sustained them through the challenges of 2020. “We lean on the Lord for everything,” he says.
Hedda Schupak last wrote about Laird & Co. for Family Business Magazine.
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