Kristina DeLaTorre grew up surrounded by flowers. As a child, she arranged flowers at her family’s floral shop, Duane’s Flowers, on the square in Iola. She missed school sometimes because she needed to help at the shop for Valentine’s Day. She used to dress up as the Easter bunny to deliver flowers.
When she was as young as 8 or 9, she waited on customers and counted change back — something that delighted “the little old ladies,” her father, Duane McGraw, said.
“They liked that she would count it back — the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters — instead of just handing it to you like the stores do now,” McGraw said.
All of that experience comes in handy now, as DeLaTorre took ownership of Duane’s Flowers Jan. 1. McGraw retired Dec. 31 after 50 years in the flower business, 41 years as owner of Duane’s Flowers. He will celebrate his 75th birthday Wednesday, Jan. 10. A combined retirement reception and birthday celebration event is scheduled for 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, with cake and refreshments provided.
A family business
McGraw bought the flower shop in 1976 after nine years of working for the Garnett Greenhouse following his military service in Vietnam. Four years later, he moved the business from its location on the north side of the square in Iola to a larger building on the east side, where it remains. McGraw insisted on a building with two large front windows.
It was a family business. His wife, Judy, helped out in addition to her work as a quilter. Their son, Kortney, helped deliver flowers when he was in high school. In addition to her work as a child, DeLaTorre returned to the shop in 2004 after her father had heart bypass surgery.
“We were busy constantly, especially for Valentine’s Day,” McGraw said. “We worked all night. Ate right there and still did orders. Everyone else is sleeping at 2 or 3 a.m. and you’re not halfway through your orders yet.”
Holidays and special events often require overnight work, he said. Sometimes, he would pay for a hotel room for employees who worked out of town.
“It’s a job that’s not easy. You can’t make the thing click if you don’t work all night.”
McGraw recalled one Christmas Eve not long ago. His work for a funeral service for a local businessman kept him out until 7:30 a.m. Christmas morning. When he returned home, his family already was hard at work on Christmas dinner.
“You have to cater to your customers, but you always make it,” he said.
DeLaTorre agreed it can be difficult to manage the time commitment required of a floral shop. While holidays, especially Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, are notoriously busy for florists, funerals present a special challenge. The shop typically has just one or two days to prepare for a service; if one takes place on a Monday, that means a full day of work on Sunday. Customers typically prefer things like lilies or gladiolus flowers for funeral arrangements, but those flowers may not be available in time for a service.
“The biggest thing is the time. You could have three or four funerals plus people having birthdays and anniversaries.Then you might go a few days and there’s nothing going on,” she said.
McGraw decided to retire a couple of years ago and attempted to sell the shop, but twice the deals fell through, each at the last minute. DeLaTorre initially wasn’t interested in taking over the business but decided it was the best thing for her and her family.
“A second-generation business,” McGraw said. “I never thought that would happen.”
DeLaTorre plans few changes for the shop. She’ll shorten the shop’s hours on Saturdays; instead of being open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., she plans to open at 9 a.m. and close at 1 p.m. Her father took pride in being one of the only businesses on the square to be open all day, but DeLaTorre said Saturdays just don’t bring in enough customers.
Other than that, customers shouldn’t notice much difference, she said. She plans to keep most of the same services.
McGraw plans to find ways to keep himself busy in retirement. He likes to cook and work on puzzles. He might accompany his wife on some of her quilting-related trips. He’s also offered to help out at a local funeral home, greeting people as they arrive for the service.
He isn’t quite ready to sever all ties to the floral shop, though. He plans to continue a special project on Memorial Day, when he travels to area cemeteries to decorate about 100 graves for families from around the country. He decorates the grave, then takes a picture to send to the family.
He’s been doing that since the 1970s and no one else, not even his daughter, knows how to find all of the gravestones.
“That’s my baby. I’ll still do the cemeteries for Memorial Day.”