People in the floral industry have been showing up at my bookstore events and for the most part, they're quite happy to have the complexities of their industry explained to the general public. One night last week, I thought a couple of audience members were going to come to blows. A woman raised her hand and asked me why it was so hard to get a florist to arrange flowers according to her instructions. "I told her no baby's breath, no ferns, no fillers," the woman complained. "But she did it anyway. This typical arrangement with all those fillers. Are they just throwing in cheap greens to make it look like more than it is?"
The florists, all seated together on the other side of the aisle, stiffened. "Those greens aren't cheap," one of them said tersely.
"A good florist will always work with you and give you what you want, as long as they have it in their shop," another said.
"Maybe that shop just had a different design aesthetic than you do," a third said.
I somehow managed to get everybody settled down, and I recommended a network of upscale florists that I profiled in Flower Confidential ? they never do the baby's breath and fern thing ? but the conversation pointed out this great contradiction the floral industry struggles with. On one hand, our standards are very, very high, and on the other hand, we're not willing to pay much.
In some ways, florists and booksellers are in the same boat. They're facing competition from mass market outlets like grocery stores. They find it hard to compete on price and still pay the rent. They struggle to hold on to customers who still place a value on good service and a quality selection. (There is such a thing as a higher-quality rose ? one that was bred to last longer in the vase, grown under better conditions, and handled properly from farm to florist so that it will stay fresh. You might pay a little more, but you get a little more, too.)
A good florist can give a human face to the very intimate act of sending someone flowers. I called a florist a couple months ago and said, "I need a bouquet to hand to someone at a retirement dinner, so it can't be too big and flashy, and she's very elegant and sophisticated but doesn't like anything too frilly or feminine. Can you do that?"
Of course she could do it. The bouquet was perfect, filled with fragrant winter greens (it was just before Christmas), exquisite peonies, and a few other simple, gorgeous blooms. Florists can take what you tell them about a person and translate that into flowers. And then they will actually put those flowers in the car and drive them across town and place them in the hands of your mother or your sister or your lover. What other gift can you have personally delivered like that? A pizza?
Booksellers play the same matchmaking game between books and readers. You can tell them, for instance, that your father loves Alan Furst and goes to Paris every year, and they'll take you straight to the next author he should read. By the way, Dad's birthday is coming up. What is the next author he should read?