BU News Service
The phone on the desk in front Jackie Levine rings loudly. She stares at it, and it rings again.
“Dad, you have to get that,” she calls in the direction the small office room where David Levine sits.
It’s a Sunday afternoon and Jackie sits at the command center of Central Square Florist, where the orders come in. Near the front desk is a shelf of stuffed bears, and a large walk-in cooler bursting with color composed of everything from roses from Ecuador to New England-grown sunflowers. A couple browses the potted plants near the front of the shop, and a staff member wraps up a bouquet for a customer a few feet away as Jackie speaks quickly, full of enthusiasm.
“I get really excited when people come in looking for my grandparents and I’m like ‘oh yeah I’m their granddaughter,’ and then they look at my dad and they’re like ‘wow,'” she said. “People think I’m a little bit older than 22.”
When Central Square Florist opened in in 1929, it was a simple operation—shoppers came in, bought a bouquet or two, and that was that. Eighty-six years later though, the flower industry has transformed and the shop now faces unforeseen competition from floral e-commerce sites like 1-800-Flowers and Teleflora. To stay in the game, this local family-run business, now with 22-year-old Jackie Levine and her father David at the helm, has had to constantly chase innovation, even if that means abandoning old standbys.
“We really have changed over the years. We’re always upgrading our technology and never being afraid to change,” David Levine, 52, of Framingham, the shop’s owner and third generation of his family to run the shop, said.
Levine’s great-uncle, Moris Gamer, purchased the shop in the 1940s and Levine’s father, Myron, now 80, began working there in 1952 before buying it from his uncle in the ‘60s. In 1982 Myron Levine’s wife Sandra, a retired teacher in the Boston school system, joined the operation.
David started in the shop when he was 12, helping his father by sweeping the floors.
“It was much smaller, much different type of operation,” Levine said. “It was more of just a bucket shop. There was no internet, people just came into the store and bought flowers. This even was before supermarkets had flowers, so if you wanted flowers you went into a florist.”
Levine entered the business after graduating from Northeastern University in 1986, and since then change in the shop has come fast.
“Our son David after college brought the store into the modern age. We tended to say no to many changes, but he said yes and persevered,” Sandra Levine, 77, of Natick, said.
The transformations began in the ‘80s when the personal computer started to take off and David Levine told his parents they needed to jump on the new technology fast, and put it to use in the shop.
“They said absolutely not. But then we did computerize and that’s really been a big part of our success over the years, just always jumping to the next technology,” David Levine said.
Both Myron and Sandra Levine are retired, and it is David’s job to keep the shop afloat. Now it’s no longer other small flower shops down the road that they’re competing with. It’s the bigger ones, ones without storefronts and communities behind them, but instead with CEOs and boardrooms.
“Our biggest competitors aren’t other flower shops in the area. I think now it’s things like 1-800-Flowers, Teleflora, FTD, because just if you do a search online you’re bombarded with the ads online that they’re paying big dollars for,” Jackie Levine said.
Just as the internet brought this new source of powerful competition though, it also brought a new online community that Central Square Florist has been able to successfully tap into—social media.
“National companies can’t do social. They’re not a community, they’re not local. They try to do it, but what I see most of the time is national companies’ posts are just a springboard for people complaining about service they’ve given them and then they delete it,” David Levine said.
David Levine first saw a possible use for Twitter in the site’s earlier years, and created an account for the shop in 2009, unsure what would become of it.
“People had it, but it was very new…he always brags that he’s the one who made all these accounts…and now it has grown so much,” Jackie Levine said.
Central Square Florist now has 2,535 followers on Twitter, 6,146 likes on Facebook, and 5,343 followers on Instagram.
“It was just jumping in and seeing what happens,” David Levine said.
At the helm of all of the social media accounts is 22-year-old Jackie Levine, who officially joined the business full-time this year after graduating from UMass Amherst with a degree in sociology. She grew up coming into the shop from the family’s home Framingham with her younger sister to help out after school, on weekends, and the occasional snow day.
“Me and my dad have been close all of my life…I think it’s great working with your family because you always have someone to depend on,” she said. “We definitely do butt heads and fight about very small, kind of stupid things, but I think the positives outweigh it.”
After graduation, Jackie transitioned from counter work to becoming more involved in the business side of the operation. One of her main focuses now is growing the shop’s presence online to keep the shop from becoming a fourth-generation shop stuck in first generation business practices.
“I think if you’re not online you’re kind of not on the ball. I know before I go places even I look on social media. People look online they see you’re real,” Levine said.
Social media has also helped the shop by bringing in a new, younger customer base that otherwise might not feel a need to visit an old flower shop when it’s far easier to order flowers right from their devices.
“We have a lot of students in this community…so we do need to cater to that age group,” she said.
All of the Levine’s agree that it’s easier to do that with a young brain on the team, someone who perhaps isn’t as attached to the old ways of doing business but instead has a stockpile of new ideas.
“I think having someone younger in your business sets you apart. I know that not every business in our industry has someone my age to kind of keep up with everything and you need to be able to grow. We can’t be like ‘oh we’ve just been in business since 1929 and business is great’ you have to keep up with how things are changing,” Jackie Levine said.
Today, successful florists aren’t just plant encyclopedias with a good eye for design, they’re marketing experts too. Jackie Levine spends much of her time improving the search engine optimization of the shop’s two-year-old state-of-the-art website, which according to David Levine only about 60 other florists in the country have.
“It was very, very expensive but we saw this was the direction we needed to go…if we didn’t do that a couple years ago we would have been in trouble,” David Levine said.
Having a modern website with all of the functionality that a site like 1-800-Flowers allows the business to reach a new customer base beyond the Boston area. Since updating the website online orders have skyrocketed, according to David Levine.
“We get people who call from overseas, Europe or the Middle East, people from California—all over the world to send flowers here to the Metro Boston area,” Jackie Levine said.
Just because they might look like a big business on the web though, doesn’t mean they’re looking to distance themselves from being the homegrown community shop that they’ve been for decades. David Levine has been on the board of the Central Square Business Association for 30 years, and this year, Central Square Florist was named Cambridge Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year.
They are supported by other area businesses that order flower arrangements and balloons for special occasions from the shop. Though today, they just so happen to be bringing in some much bigger names than the tiny shoe store around the corner.
“Multiple times a week we’re delivering to Google, delivering to Facebook, delivering to Amazon. And they have some very cool offices,” Jackie Levine said with a grin.