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AucklandOctober 18, 2017

The flower seller

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Shobhana Ranchhodji runs a florist’s shop in one of the most difficult locations in the city: right by the Albert St tunnelling project for the City Rail Link. Simon Wilson went along to meet a retailer who’s determined to keep making her customers happy.

There are orchids in a corner, lying in a box, their long stems and precious curling heads wrapped carefully in cellophane. Orchids get the greatest of care. Mind you, everything else gets a great deal of care too, in a florist’s shop. Shobhana Ranchhodji at Roma Blooms on Albert St takes a great deal of pride in the freshness of her flowers, her care for her customers, her devotion to the idea that a flower shop brings something special to a community. You’re helping people say thank you, and I’m sorry, and congratulations, and my heartfelt wishes are with you at this time. And I love you.

In ways that really matter, you’re helping people connect.

It’s not so easy doing that on Albert St right now, with the tunnel for the City Rail Link snaking its way up the street, disrupting traffic, disrupting pedestrians, disrupting the retail trade. But it’s still a bustling street. The businesses in office blocks are as busy as they ever were, the Shakespeare Tavern on the Wyndham St corner is as lively as ever, Food Alley still serves some of the very best cheap food in town, and because of the disruption there are added attractions.

The screens along the roadworks and keeping the public from straying onto other construction sites are resplendent with scenes of New Zealand wildlife, and with art, and with photos of the best of the early architecture. Even better, the middle sections of the pedestrian crossings have been transformed into viewing platforms: big picture windows allow you to look down into the mud and guts of the underneath of the city, watch the workers and their machines, absorb yourself in the engineering of it all, marvel at the progress. This is Auckland, digging down so it can rise, a bigger, better city than ever.

Shobhana Ranchhodji of Roma Blooms on Albert St. (All photos Joel Thomas)

Meanwhile, Shobhana is up at 4.30am, at the markets three mornings a week in time for the auction at 5.30. She’s tracking four different courier companies, she’s prepping and designing and arranging and running her staff – it’s smiles all round in that shop – and she’s putting the beauty of flowers into people’s lives.

She thought she was going to be a painter, once upon a time, or maybe a touch-up artist, but when she was still young she had some trouble with her hands. Instead, she worked in a florist’s shop, cleaning up, “just doing whatever had to be done. The owner was a Dutch immigrant. She saw a talent.”

Not that Shobhana knew it herself. “I was a smart-alec, I was the cheekiest sod you could find. But she taught me I could do this.”

That first mentor also taught Shobhana the value of hard work. Much later, she found herself working for a man who took her for granted. “It was too hard. Actually I would love to work for someone else, not but like that. I had to get out.”

It was her brother-in-law who saw the shop. It had been a florist’s for 20 years, and sold “other stuff” too, and there was a loyal customer base but not a lot of broader appeal. “A lot of people didn’t even know it was here.”

They renovated, opening the shop up and making it more welcoming. “There’s nothing out the back. All the space is for the customers, they can wander around without worrying about bumping into things. It’s for them.”

And she’s learned their tastes. Red and white are popular. “You can’t do that in Ponsonby, up there red and white remind everyone of bandages.”

“This is not like the suburbs, you know. There, most of your customers are the same type of person, but here we get everybody. I love that.”

Pākehā customers like odd numbers: five flowers, seven flowers. Chinese customers buy nine flowers at a time – it’s a lucky number. Everyone likes a single lovely bloom.

There’s not as much foot traffic as there used to be, although that will change as the CRL moves south and the street restores itself. But new people come in every day, they tell Shobhana they’ve walked past so many times and they’re so glad they’ve finally stopped.

She sells loss leaders – posies and little “$5 delights” – and non-floral gifts too. Vintage bottles are popular, and there are soft toys, novelties, cards. During the just-finished Artweek she had a show of flowers frozen in blocks of ice. Something different, something surprising.

The flowers are the thing, every week something new, marking the ever-changing seasons. Roma Blooms also has a busy online operation, selling from Pukekohe in the south to Red Beach in the north. She told me the story of an order that had gone wrong and the lengths she had gone, with new flowers and a special out-of-hours courier, to fix the problem. “It wasn’t the cost, it was that we really let a customer down,” she says. “I had a little cry that day.”

I asked her if she had a dream. She waited for a long time, thinking. Clearly, she didn’t have a dream, a secret ambition to do things in a completely different way or to do something else altogether.

“I don’t believe in anything instant,” she said eventually. “You have to make it happen.”

That was certainly true with the council. When the CRL disruption started, Shobhana said it took a little while for the council and local businesses to agree on how to keep the street functional for the retailers and their customers. But the early difficulties disappeared once the council put a good activations team in place. “Magic happened that day,” she said. “The council team is behind every business now. They’re there to help and they do, they really do.”

Shobhana Ranchhodji is there to help too. Albert St is a big, fascinating, remarkably functional but pretty messy work-in-progress. Up where Roma Blooms is, near what will be one of the big entrances for Aotea station, it’s going to be an exciting part of the city. But that’s a few years off. Right now, Shobhana is selling flowers, for all the excellent reasons people buy flowers. Matching emotional connection with beauty. Shobhana is helping people to be happy. It’s business in the city, aspiration in the city, life in the city.

“I love my customers,” she said as I was about to leave. “Everyone should feel this shop belongs to them.”

Roma Blooms is at Albert St, just down from the Victoria St intersection. View the website here.

The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business. This content was commissioned in association with them as part of that partnership.

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