Friday, September 29, 2023

B/A Florist provides memorial flowers, focuses on family, community, comfort for MSU students

February 16, 2023
B/A Florist owner Laurie Van Ark works next to her daughter, Olivia Van Ark in the basement on Feb. 9, 2023. Olivia is the third generation in the family to work at the shop since her grandmother Barbara Ann Hollowick founded it in 1979.
B/A Florist owner Laurie Van Ark works next to her daughter, Olivia Van Ark in the basement on Feb. 9, 2023. Olivia is the third generation in the family to work at the shop since her grandmother Barbara Ann Hollowick founded it in 1979. —
Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

Editor's note: Part of this article was written before the events of Monday, Feb. 13.

Five days before Valentine’s Day, the basement of B/A Florist was organized busyness.

Feet marched up and down the stairs, guiding flowers to their next stop, hands traded vases, scissors trimmed eucalyptus and the phone rung off the hook. Sharing the workstation with several others, owner Laurie Van Ark focused on a large same-day arrangement that takes up the width of her table. 

It was busy – but calculated. A stark contrast to the calm and quiet store just above, that has become a staple of the Mid-Michigan community since 1979 when it was founded by Barbara Ann Hollowick.

“My mother always loved to grow plants and she started a very small business out of her home when I was a teenager,” owner Laurie Van Ark said. “At one point, she decided to add a flower cooler just to see if it would increase sales and that part of the business is what took off.”

On Valentine’s Day, the flower shop is normally filled with community members and college students searching for bouquets for significant others and loved ones. 

Designers work in the basement of B/A Florist on Feb. 9, 2023.

This year was different. 

While there were still a few students picking up flowers for the holiday celebrating love, the majority were there to find ones to bring to the Spartan Statue and The Rock on Farm Lane, which are now memorial spots since Monday night’s on-campus mass shooting that took the lives of three MSU students, Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser and Alexandria Verner.

“I've done this so long and gone through so many Valentine's Days, that it was just such a shocking experience to have that instantly taken away,” Van Ark said. “It was almost non-existent. I mean, yes, there were some (buying flowers for the holiday) but nothing like it normally is. … It was so somber in here.”

Ahead of the vigil at The Rock on Wednesday night, Van Ark said the shop was packed with MSU students, purchasing flowers in memory of classmates and sharing their experiences with the employees.

“It's been so emotional,” Van Ark said. “It's kind of – I don't even know how to put it, an odd sort of experience in that, I wasn't there, but we've heard so many first accounts of these students and what they've experienced, that, in a way, it feels like we were there.”

Roses take up shelves of space in the 'Little House' behind B/A Florist on Feb. 9, 2023, just days before Valentine's Day.

In addition to owning the shop, Van Ark is a Michigan State alumnus and mother. Although her children did not attend MSU, they went to other colleges in Michigan.

“Unfortunately, (it’s) a lot of parents’ concern, you know, sending your child away and wanting them to be safe,” Van Ark said. “These young people – you're in such an important part of your life, that's going to shape the direction you head. And to have these things happen, it's almost like you are being robbed of your innocence and it just breaks my heart as a parent.”

The staple on the corner

As the business continued to grow, the need for relocation to a bigger store did too.

B/A Florist has been part of the community since it opened in 1979 in Okemos, before relocating to its current East Lansing location on the corner of Grand River Avenue and Hagadorn 1984. Van Ark started working at the shop full-time after graduating from Michigan State the same year. 

“I used to walk by here all the time as an MSU student wondering what it looked like inside,” Van Ark said. “So, when we finally got to see the inside it was as charming as you could imagine. … We loved the cozy feeling that it had and we have always wanted our store to feel good when people walk into it.”

Owner Laurie Van Ark and her daughter, Olivia, hold a heart-shaped eucalyptus pedal at B/A Florist on Feb. 9, 2023.

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“I never once felt unsafe (at MSU). Never. It's not even a thought,” Van Ark said. “So it's just such a different world now, and I think everyone is numb trying to process how to go forward.”

After Hollowick retired and Van Ark became a second-generation owner of the store in 2012, Hollowick has contributed handmade quilts that stretch across parts of the store, adding to the comfortable feeling that they were aiming for, even more so after Monday's tragedy.

“It means a lot; It's my mother's legacy,” Van Ark said. “I'm very happy and proud to see (it) continue.”

Over the last two days, Van Ark said of the many customers who were in the shop, strangers were talking, hugging and wishing for each other’s safety.

“I heard a lot of people say that it felt warm and cozy in here – and you know, I guess in a way, it made me feel good that it gave them a little bit of comfort,” Van Ark said. “The mom in me kicks in.”

A heart-shaped decoration rests in the middle of an arrangement at B/A Florist on Feb. 9, 2023. Owner Laurie Van Ark makes each of the heart shaped designs by hand.

Fostering community

The legacy has been one of fleeting interactions that create lasting memories. 

Some of Van Ark’s favorite moments in the store come from the stories that her customers share with her, sharing a glimpse of their lives and using her flowers as a means of communication.

Van Ark said B/A Florist will be providing flowers during the Spartan Sunday volunteer event intended to cheer up students as they return to campus for classes next week. It takes place Feb. 19 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. She added the store is looking for volunteers to help distribute the flowers.

“I am happy the flowers give them something beautiful to focus on, because they're doing it to lift the spirits of their classmates,” Van Ark said. “I'm happy that my business had some role in helping them to feel that they were somewhere where they were safe.”

Nina Jaffray prepares an arrangement at B/A Florist on Feb. 9, 2023.

She thinks back through the last 44 years of business and the bonds that have resulted: all the returning customers who came for proms and then weddings, baby showers and then anniversaries, the first-timers who had always passed by the shop but never stopped in.

Valentine's Day generally brings in extra help for the flower shop, it’s the biggest holiday of the year for it. While this Valentine's Day was not focused on romance but on grieving, the process remained the same. 

“I think there's just something very timeless about them,” recent graduate and B/A Florist worker Abigail Ording said. “Today, in a world where everything is very, like, plastic and everything can feel fake at times, it's nice to get something real, something natural like flowers and to bring a little bit of nature into your home.”

This kind of sentiment has propelled the shop for years and will continue to do so for years to come, allowing the folks of B/A Florist to continue to leave their impression on the East Lansing community.

“Growing up in it, I have come to see how important it is to be so integrated with your community and it's just a wonderful feeling,” Van Ark said. “We love being a part of our community, so we really try to foster those kinds of relationships.”

The designers of B/A Florist work through recipes in the basement on Feb. 9, 2023.


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