By Thomas Hiatt
EDITOR’S NOTE: Morris Floral has been a source of controversy lately, primarily focused around the building’s structural integrity. This article will not be addressing this issue.
Stepping into Morris Floral is akin to a funhouse of doors and hallways adorned with signs and arrows to keep the customer from getting lost. Entering the rear office space, which now serves as the “front”, one is met with a cacophony of parrot sirens mixed with the meowing and purring of languishing cats from the adjacent nursery. “I’ve had some of these birds for 30 years,” says owner Chris Melberg. “It started when I was little with a birdhouse full of pigeons, two tamed crows, a tamed screech owl and some parakeets.”
The original Atlantic Avenue entrance is presently sealed. The vestibule serves as a storage space of sorts with flower acuteriments such as wire butterflies, porcelain frogs, ceramic pots and other bric a brac.
Behind the building are the walled outlines and tattered roofs of what used to be greenhouses. “They collapsed one year when we had an especially heavy snowfall,” he said. “It just kept snowing and snowing. I think that one day we got 20 inches. You couldn’t even see the top of them. The beams just could not support all that weight. Consequently, I decided that I wouldn’t be raising vegetables because, in addition to the rebuilding costs, there was also competition from other stores where the prices were more reasonable. It just wouldn’t have been profitable to continue.” Being a consummate multitasker, he spoke while simultaneously texting a customer and taking inventory of his plants.
His calloused hands are instruments of delicacy and grace, creating decorative touches to both his floral arrangements and the business itself. His face has the creases of experience but his eyes remain clear and sharp from years of attention to detail.
When Mr. Melberg and his parents first purchased the business back in 1978, the interior clashed with his aesthetic sense. “At that time, there was a lot of open space in the back,” he recounted. “My dad and I put up several racks there because we wanted to know where things were instead of this clutter of box after box, not to mention the decorative ribbons being piled so high on the floor that I couldn’t handle it. After they were put up and it looked so nice, Darlene McDonnell – who had been working here when we took over – came in and said ‘oh my word! Where did the elves come from?’
“One year, I decorated every window with a little Christmas thing. One had Santa’s little bag of packages, another had a snowman. I used to decorate the tree with the jewelry, necklaces and brooches I collected. With all my personal touches, I guess I would kind of go to excess. Since it takes about a week to finish, I haven’t done it in a while.”
He has been praised for his floral arrangements at funerals, church services, in area homes, and for both the Miss Morris and Miss Minnesota competitions. “I’ve had lots of practice from when I decked out the school for the proms back when I taught in North Dakota,” he explained. “We’d make all our own decorations for that big gala. We even made chandeliers out of beer tabs. The kids would come in with ice cream buckets full of them from their local businesses and we’d work in the evening putting them together. With Christmas lights inside, they looked quite impressive. It was really fun because you got to know the kids on a different level than just in the classroom.”
He takes great pleasure in giving advice. “Sometimes people will visit just to discuss what to do with their plants. For example, if you have a spider or jade plant that gets left out on the porch during a cold snap, you could possibly give the spider a close haircut. It should come back because the center, the growth tips, would be projected down into the soil where it could still be warm. The jade might not be toast, either, if its base parts aren’t all soft and spongy. As long as you clean up all the debris, so it doesn’t rot, you should be able to save it.”
He also possesses a compassionate soul. “When the AIDS quilt – with each square devoted to a person we lost in the area – came to the U of M Morris, I brought a couple hundred carnations there and told them ‘Here, let the people buy these and lay them by the squares of loved ones.’
“And don’t even get me started with my love of our feathered friends and the felines I keep around the store or the elaborate costumes – like my witch and gnome – that I create for Halloween. I always enjoy just helping folks out. Even if they don’t end up buying anything, it’s still a worthwhile investment in the community. It’s not always about just business.”