Late one afternoon at University Flower Shop, a man stepped in from the cold air of Nickels Arcade. He stood a bit awkwardly at the counter, glasses all fogged up, until owner Danielle Vignos looked up and smiled. “Do you know what you’re looking for?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “Can you get, um, lilies? They’re a special kind of lilies … ” He fumbled and checked his phone for the name. “Stargazer lilies.”
After placing his order, the man, glasses now clear, explained his strangely specific request. He had asked his girlfriend what her favorite flower was. Her answer? You guessed it: stargazer lily. He told her, “I’m gonna get you that for Valentine’s Day.” She said, “OK.”
Ladies and gentlemen, a love story for the ages.
All kinds of people, and the romances that follow them, make their way into this small storefront with its cheerful window displays and warm atmosphere. After all, that is the nature of a flower shop. Working here is about more than artistic arrangements and begonia shipments. People send flowers as an expression of love in all its forms, whether it’s the first kiss or final goodbye, regretful apology or blossoming friendship.
When everything from accounting to relationship advice is part of your job description, making everything run smoothly is no easy task. In little over a year, University Flower Shop has transformed from a quaint but struggling business into a fresh, welcoming space full of youthful potential. The woman responsible for this remarkable turnaround is 22-year-old Vignos, a recent University of Michigan graduate and newly minted small business owner. Vignos is also a former Michigan Daily columnist.
Walking into the shop on a freezing January day feels like a long exhale. Summer air rushes out for a moment as the door, emblazoned with University Flower Shop, est. 1959, swings open. Vignos, always busy arranging bouquets and tending shop, greets customers warmly as quiet music plays from the shop’s tiny loft balcony overlooking the arcade. Every surface of the cozy space is covered with living things — mauve, violet, green and colors that don’t even have names — a welcome contrast to gray downtown that many customers appreciate. A student with cheerful clothing to combat the February chill, stopped by for that very reason. “I just think flowers brighten up your day,” she explained. A chalk sign by the counter seems to agree, sharing a handwritten Emerson quote: “Earth laughs in flowers.”
With its old-fashioned air and cozy interior, sometimes it seems as though the shop sprung into existence fully formed. But like the flowers it carries, the process was slow and challenging, and Vignos continues to transform the space.
“Everything is kind of growing together slowly,” she explained.
The seeds of the business, however, were planted a long time ago. Vignos has loved flowers and plants for as long as she can remember.
“My dad had a big garden growing up; he had a bunch of roses,” she said. “I had a little garden outside my bedroom called ‘Dani’s Garden.’ I remember in the summertime we’d always do our potting and repotting, we’d go to the nursery, and my brother and I would get to pick out all the flowers and decide what we were going to plant that season. ”
When Michigan winter came around, she sought solace in her local flower shops.
“Something about it made feel so at peace and at ease,” Vignos remembered.
Flash forward to her graduation from the University. When she heard through the grapevine that a local florist was going on the market, she jumped at the opportunity to bring her childhood love of flowers and her adult business interests together.
“I had a kid dream about owning a flower shop, and I was interested in small business and entrepreneurship, more into brick and mortar spaces,” she explained.
In a time when more and more interactions from shopping to dating take place online, Vignos began to understand what an important role physical spaces play in town.
“I love community spaces,” she said. “Small businesses in general are just awesome, how a space can inform how you feel or what you’re thinking about, what you’re doing.”
After spending time getting to know the old shop and its owner, they reached a deal, and the shop was hers. Then the real work began. The shop was in need of a serious overhaul, something Vignos and her dedicated employees are still engaged in.
First order of business?
“Bettering our reputation, because this place has gone in and out of good times and bad times. So I just wanted to bring back our friendly nature and our history a little bit. We’ve been here forever, and so I feel like it’s a place that … ” Vignos paused. “It can’t leave, you know?”
This meant transforming the inventory and renovating the space, making it more open and appealing to current tastes. Even in a brick-and-mortar environment, Vignos knew she had to get the 60-year-old shop up to speed, including establishing a presence on social media.
“I had to get to know this space a little bit better, and figure out what was not functioning well in order to figure out what I wanted to change,” she said. “And I’m still very much in the process of doing that.”
No one, Vignos included, anticipated just how much work she and her employees need to pour into the shop every day. She said she has a new appreciation for the daily trials of small business owners, who form a supportive community in Ann Arbor to which she feels privileged to belong.
“I see it as so much more than a business, so maybe that’s how everyone sees it,” she said. “People just seem to put so much time and energy and extra 110 percent in all the time.”
But while the sheer amount of elbow grease the shop requires has been a reality check, the personal, touching surprises that come with owning a flower shop are a constant source of joy. Vignos said she’s amazed at the breathtaking variety and uniqueness of her wares.
“You think you know a lot about flowers and plants, and then every day it has just been turned upside down,” she said.
The personal connections with employees, who are as passionate about the shop as Vignos is, have made her experience even more rewarding.
“It does mean a lot that I know the people who are helping make this place are having a good time,” Vignos said.
During our brief visit, Valentine’s Day was in the air, for customers and employees alike. A delivery person told Vignos about her Valentine’s plans to visit her daughter: “Give her a visit, make her some dinner, tell her I love her and that’s enough.”
And then, there are the romances, new and old, that sit at the heart of the shop. When customers come in, they’re looking for something beautiful, something tangible, that will express a feeling they can’t explain in words. Vignos’s bouquets are sent to people in every sort of relationship, from “just friends” to “just married.”
“It’s a riot; I love it,” Vignos said. “I see a lot of people evolving through their relationships.”
Some come into the shop for a single rose to ask someone out. Months later, they come in for a full bouquet, sharing that now they’re happily dating the recipient of that first lonely flower.
Other times, the shop’s storied legacy means that Vignos encounters love stories older than her.
“It’s definitely a place with a history,” she explained. “I’ll have people come back who had their wedding flowers done here like 40 years ago.”
Things have changed, though, since the shop first opened in 1959. This Valentine’s Day, the boy-sends-girl-flowers trope continues as always, but other types of relationships, whether it’s a same-sex couple or a girl sending flowers to her boyfriend, have become common as well.
“We get a lot of couples coming in — boys and girls, and boyfriends of girlfriends, and girlfriends of girlfriends, (and) friends,” she said. “And they always — well, not always — but they’ll come and tell me how it went because I’m nosy and I ask what the occasion is.”
While we talked, a couple stood in front of the display case, staring and pointing and discussing in whispers for a good 10 minutes. Eventually, they order a bouquet of roses, “orangey-red” ones, to be exact, to receive this Valentine’s weekend.
“We decided to do our Valentine’s shopping together this year,” the woman explained. His idea. “So we’re getting roses together, and buying chocolates together.”
Vignos smiled and wrote down their order, her old-fashioned notepad at odds with the iPad where customers sign their names. The couple strolled out into the cold, though they’ll be back in a few days for their roses. The shop was quiet again for a minute, the only sounds the rustle of the plants and the broom on the tile floor.
“It’s always really satisfying and nice to hear people’s stories about why they’re getting people flowers. Sometimes it feels like a bartending job, people just come clean,” she said. “It’s rewarding every day, truly.”