- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

Aside from a canvas tent lined with wooden shelves that sit in wait for vases of red roses, Welsh corgi Miles Davis is the only living thing that’s stationary this week in Lee’s Flower and Card Shop on historic U Street NW.

Owner Richard “Rick” Lee was busy yesterday restocking his shop with spools of red ribbons, balloons and stuffed animals with Valentine’s Day greetings, while his daughter and office manager, Kristie, 32, was pacing the length of the store while taking phone orders.

In a frigid upstairs workshop overflowing with buckets of 4,000 roses along with orchids, carnations and baby’s breath, his daughter, Stacie, 40, was creating bridal bouquets. His granddaughter and Wilson High School senior, LeChe, 17, was greeting customers at the front cash register, while his mother-in-law, Rita Stebbins, was seated at the computer in the back office, tallying receipts.

Meanwhile, his wife, Marie, and mother, Winnifred, were sweeping stray stems surrounding the workbench of those filling the day’s orders. Even Miles had a duty — keeping a watchful eye over all.

It’s a frenzied family affair. But the lively lineup represents five decades that the Lee family has been gearing up to deliver Valentine’s Day flowers and gifts to generations of Washingtonians.

“We’re the oldest continuous family-owned flower business in Washington, D.C., black or white,” said Mr. Lee, 60, who checked with longtime wholesalers to ensure his boastful claim.

“This is the biggest week in the flower business, and we’re totally organized, and as long it doesn’t snow, we’re going to kill it,” he said, then joked, “or it’s going to kill us.”

The Lees are one of the few remaining family-owned businesses along the U Street corridor, once known as Washington’s “Black Broadway.” Only the Industrial Bank owned by the Doyle Mitchell family, Ben’s Chili Bowl owned by the Ben Ali family, a barbershop and a shop-repair store remain a part of the landscape.

Lee’s Flower Shop is one destination on the D.C. Cultural Tourism tour.

As part of the historic U Street project, later this month one of the storefront windows will showcase the bygone era with vintage Scurlock Studios photographs of Washington’s black society events for which the florist provided arrangements.

“We’ve been fortunate to stay in business. We advertise, but it’s been by word of mouth that people continue to support us for years,” Winnifred Lee said.

It hasn’t always been easy. Mr. Lee reminisced with his mother about the night they stayed in the shop holding vigil with shotguns to protect their property during the 1968 riots.

“I think the word went out not to touch Lee’s,” Mrs. Lee said. Mr. Lee said it didn’t hurt that they wrote “Soul Brother” on the window.

“We survived the riots all right, but we almost didn’t survive the Metro construction,” he said.

During that difficult period, the entire U Street corridor was deserted because construction of the subway system made access to the stores nearly impossible. Mr. Lee said one day he became so frustrated that he kicked down a newly installed fence because not only couldn’t customers get to his front door, neither could he.

By then, the shop had relocated to the corner of 11th and U streets NW, where it presently stands. The original Lee’s Flowers Shop was opened in 1951 at Ninth and U streets NW when William Lee sprung off from his brother’s Lee-James florist at 14th and U streets.

The “New U” revitalization, which has fostered a major gentrification shift in demographics, also has been troublesome for smaller black-owned businesses and longtime families.

He also finds it upsetting that the D.C. government courts new businesses and residents with tax breaks and financial incentives but says “it is a slap in the face” that the city does not offer the similar breaks to those who have withstood the difficult decades in the city.

The week of Valentine’s Day is a blessing and a burden for the Lees. He has to hire an additional seven delivery trucks.

Customers “really beat us up,” he said of the one-day holiday orders. “It’s so intense and condensed because everything’s got to happen on that one day.”

Mr. Lee said his family likes to stay “on the cutting edge of the new innovations” in the floral industry, and his daughter, Stacie, is the past president of the Washington-area Teleflora businesses.

Mr. Lee’s mother said she is proud that her progeny maintain the family business, especially now, when they have so many more options.

“Lots of folks come by and don’t want to buy anything, they just stop by to see if we’re still here,” Mr. Lee said. He added, jokingly, “I tell them if they don’t buy something we might not be here the next time they come around.”

Here’s wishing that the Lee family remains a U Street fixture and will be delivering Valentine’s Day bouquets for many more generations to come.

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