Human Flower Project

Vada Schwartz ~ My Florist in a Hot Rod

Arizona’s florist bandit conquered Phoenix with her imported orchids and out-sized personal style.

imageOnce Phoenix’s biggest flower shop, now a cafe

Photo: Phxpma

Progressives may want to tune out, as we reek of nostalgia today. Who wouldn’t after seeing this sign??

Those of you in Phoenix, Arizona, know it well: the landmark (skymark?) above 534 W McDowell Rd. Here for 49 years was the largest flower shop in the city, operated by Vada Schwartz, a small-businesswoman who was bigger than life…

…Once upon a time, Vada “rode up on a horse, bandana across her face, and proceeded to hold up her own store at gun point. She galloped away with all the money from the register, not to be seen for two weeks.” Today for a maneuver like that, she’d no doubt be on an ankle monitor, a suspected terrorist.

Schwartz grew the business on down McDowell Road. It used to fill several buildings along this block, all of them “painted a vibrant orchid color inside and out” to match her purple delivery trucks. The flower shop closed twelve years ago, but we don’t know the full story. Did Vada die, sell out, or ride to Old Mexico after another self-heist?

imageMy Florist Cafe, in Phoenix

Photo: Feasting in Phoenix

Now, the shop is My Florist Café.

It seems to be a slightly pricey joint, with a piano bar but/and downhome food. We’ve run across some grumbles from recent customers, but the fare would have to be pretty rotten and the piano way out of tune to spoil seeing this flamboyant sign. Credit’s due to the restaurateurs who preserved it, no mater how they cook.

Is it a coincidence that just about when Schwartz closed My Florist, in 1996, the flower-shop trade began slumping?

Through clenched teeth, the Society of American Florists reports that the number of flower shops has declined each year since 1998. “The number of retail florist establishments fell 2.5 percent in 2005” alone. (SAF’s latest survey found 22,753 flower shops in the U.S.)

Just in the past month, we’ve seen stories of shops closing all across the country: Olivehurst, California; Du Quoin, Illinois; and (sad but true) Chagrin Falls, Ohio, to name only three. Vada may have cashed out just in time.

imageBesasie X-2, custom built by Raymond Besasie of Milwaukee. Vada Schwartz, its second owner, had Besasie change the original lemon yellow paint to “candy purple, just like one of her orchids”

Photo: George Barris

The little we’ve been able to learn about her came mostly from the Café’s website:

“Mrs. Schwartz literally lived in orchid, from her everyday dress, to the color of her Cadillac (sic) - and of course, she wore a beautiful and fresh orchid each day, offering customers the opportunity to receive free fresh flowers if they ever caught her without one on her person.”

We think this would be a superb promotion for contemporary florists! Has anybody tried it? Doubtful.

These days, most of the ambitious florists we meet seem intent on changing the public perception of what they do. “Anyone can be a ‘floral designer,’ even at the supermarket,” said Deborah De La Flor (?), of Cooper City, Florida. “We’re artists, not just arrangers.” It’s an effort to strip off the old “service industry” apron and put on a beret. Fair enough (just don’t point out to these folks that, on average, motel maids make more than artists do.)

Vada certainly was no mere designer, no mere anything. She was a performance artist, wearing a perpetually lapping orchid on her bosom, wheeling around Phoenix in her custom built Besasie (trademark purple). From what we can tell, she knew that in a business as personal as floristry, “spectacular” is fine but “aloof” is tricky—maybe even downright dumb. What a terrific mix of clowning and intimacy she managed. And exoticism—back when you couldn’t find orchids in the produce section. Before MySpace and My Morning Jacket, there was “My Florist” – purple brainchild of Vada Schwartz.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/24 at 04:36 PM


Julie, I hope we meet someday so I can show you the smile you put on my face when you write such great stories. smile I loved reading about this woman and when she robbed her own shop. lol

Keep up the awesome work here!

Posted by Brandon Kirkland on 09/25 at 05:05 PM

Thanks, Brandon, and great to hear from you. Hope your business is thriving up in Oregon (with or without gold-ups).

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 10/03 at 11:04 AM
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