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Most of us wouldn't consider starting work at 2 am part of the good life. But four times a week, Natasha and her partner head to the San Francisco Flower Mart in the dark of night to arrive early enough to get the freshest, most exotic flowers. Then, seven days a week, they sell the flowers at their flower shops in Noe Valley, in the Fillmore and on Market Street. Sleep? Natasha says with a laugh, "No, not really," and then admits to taking two-hour naps two or three times a day. "Sleep deprivation," she says cheerfully.
"The flower business is very stressful," she says. "Everything has to be done last minute. But I enjoy the hard work. I can't sit still in one place, and this business has a lot of physical labor. By noon, the dahlias are almost sold out and a steady parade of people has come in buying bouquets ranging in price from $6.25 to around $50. When a woman asks for a $10 bouquet, Natasha makes one that is probably worth more: She wants her customers to make the store a habit."
...Natasha doesn't seem overworked or even tired -- she has an excitable laugh that makes her pale face flush often. With her blond hair and chic Scandinavian clothes, she looks like a girl in a fairy tale who's followed a road deep into the forest and met flowers instead of wolves. "Sometimes, when it's 2 am, I just think it's so romantic to go through the fog in the middle of the night to buy flowers," she says in her slight Russian accent.
Working long hours in the shop and taking financial risks is worth it for the dream of making a decent living and enjoying a sense of autonomy. She and her partner don't want to get rich with a chain of flower shops; their desires are simpler. They'd like to be able to go out dancing whenever they like. They opened their first flower shop, Flowers of the Valley, in Noe Valley two and a half years ago. Within the last few months, they opened shops by the same name at Market and Fourth Street, and on Fillmore Street near California Street. But with the new shops comes more responsibility. "Last night, we went out to dinner with friends," she says, "and we wanted to go out dancing afterward, but we couldn't. We had to go to the Flower Mart at 2."
Today, Natasha is minding the Fillmore location, which has been open only three weeks. Many people come wandering through, nursing their coffees as they appraise the puffy pink dahlias, the glovelike black kangaroo flowers and the striated Columbian roses. The shop is airy, and the flowers sit in vases on tall metal shelves, each variety distinct and shown off to advantage like ballerinas standing at the barre. Natasha, bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet, greets everyone who enters, answering questions from various customers in rapid succession: How long will the hydrangeas last? How much are the narcissuses? Is that kind of orchid common? Should I get an odd number of tuberose stalks?
Fillmore is an expensive neighborhood -- across the street, a store named Shabby Chic sports prices that are anything but shabby. The rent on the San Francisco flower shop is higher than what Natasha and her partner pay for their other two stores combined. "It's a scary risk," says Natasha, "but I think its market value will bring more business." The stores count on selling volume and throwing away few flowers, so this store often sells fresher flowers for less than competitors' shops. Natasha's customers, many if whom display expensive Pilates-toned midriffs, so far seem to like the exotic flowers Natasha finds at 2 in the morning. When they compliment the store, which they do frequently, Natasha blushes.
Excerpts from "Working Hard for the Money Immigrants carve out the American dream" by Lisa Margonelli, special to San Francisco Gate www.sfgate.com
Bouquet to Art 2005 in the Legion of Honor Museum of San Francisco.