No baby’s breath. No carnations. No dyed daises.
The Flower Mill isn’t your grandmother’s flower shop. Joanna Hall isn’t your grandmother’s florist.
The 31-year-old bespectacled, vibrantly tattooed Hall who once fronted a rock band may be the last person one would expect to open a flower shop in a city that has been the home of many traditional florists, many of whom have been in business for generations.
But, while she has a bit of an edge that comes with growing up in the city, she also has a big welcoming smile, sense of humor and warmth that puts customers at ease. Plus, she really knows what she’s doing.
A native of Lowell’s Pawtucketville neighborhood, Hall struggled with finding herself as a teenager and was hospitalized at the beginning of her senior year of high school with Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia.
Even in her darkest times, there was one place to turn.
“Art has always been a saving grace for me,” she said. “I’ve always been creative and did anything I could get my hands on to feed that creative outlet.”
After graduating from Lowell High School in 2003, Joanna headed to Florence, Italy to study at the Santa Reparata International School of Art.
Upon returning home, she enrolled at Blaine Beauty School and kept searching for what she wanted to do, which led to the New Hampshire Institute of Art.
Hall put herself through school by working at Laughton’s Garden Center in North Chelmsford. Over a six-year period she learned every facet of the business.
She graduated in the spring of 2011 and by Christmas was ready to stop working for other people and set off on her own.
“I knew it was going to be a long hard struggle to pay the bills with a painting and photography degree,” she said. “I decided to open a flower shop in late December, a month later I was opening the doors. I figured if things went badly it is better to go bankrupt at 27 than at 57.”
She knew the business.
“I had had my hands in the dirt for years,” said Hall. “I had almost all of the knowledge I needed. But, could I make this happen from scratch?”
Hall sought advice from the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce and the Merrimack Valley Small Business Center, but the floral industry is still “a real old school apprenticeship type of business” she said.
Independent florists face stiff competition from supermarkets and warehouse stores that offer prices smaller stores cannot.
“They sell cheap (in price and quality) bouquets and people buy them because they are convenient.” Hall said. “I was already a flower snob to begin with, and really wanted to do some cool things and find a niche market and give people something they can’t find at the grocery store. I will not sacrifice to please a wider crowd.”
The Flower Mill opened its doors on Merrimack Street on February 3, 2012 – less than two weeks before Valentines’ Day.
“It was an emotional day, like an out of body experience – I couldn’t believe I was really doing it,” Hall said.
She pulled her boyfriend, mom, dad and sister in to work in the shop.
“My heart wasn’t even beating out of my chest; it was on the floor, getting stepped over and put in the corner,” she recalled.
Although she was the new kid on the block in a sea of well-established local florists, Hall wasn’t intimidated. She didn’t even advertise.
“I have it way easier than people did 50 years ago,” she said, citing the ease of spreading the word through social media and having the advantage of being from Lowell having a built in network of family and friends to spread the word.
Hall knew when she hatched the plan to open a flower shop that she wanted to be in Downtown Lowell and she knew it would be difficult.
Her first location was priced right and had a loading zone out front, but that is where the benefits ended.
“That first winter I knew the place was going to be a problem,” she said.
The heating system was broken and the landlord refused to fix it, she said.
“It instantly became a stressful situation,” Hall added. “I was paying $1,000 a month for rent and $1,200 a month for heat.”
The space also had water leaking through the back wall that caused a mold problem.
In the winter of 2014, Hall talked to a lawyer and realized she didn’t have the time or the money to fight the landlord. She began looking for a new location.
The Merrimac Rug building at Dutton and Market Street was sitting empty.
“I grew up looking at this building; I took a million pictures of the sign,” Hall said. “Watching it deteriorate for years was so depressing; it’s such a good space.”
She called building owner Nick Sarris.
“Nick and I hit it off – he’s hilarious when he wants to be,” she said. “He saw himself in me, a young person coming in and trying to do something in Lowell. We teamed up.”
The duo split the cost of renovating the building, totally gutting it and putting in new plumbing and a new electrical system, new floors and ceilings.
“We kept it a secret for long time,” she said. “He could have made a lot of money by just tearing it down and building something new here, but he took a chance on me.”
The Flower Mill opened in the new location in May 2015. Large windows flood sunlight into the shop and the location provides excellent visibility to those driving along busy Dutton Street and those walking the downtown and Acre neighborhoods.
“We are growing very fast.” Hall said. “We have added two employees and are looking for another and another after that. Profits have doubled every month from the previous year since we moved.”
Years working in retail as a waitress and florist gave Hall an appreciation for how to treat people well and how to be patient with difficult customers, but “this isn’t Burger King, you can’t always get it your way,” she laughed.
“There is always someone impossible to please; it happens almost everyday,” Hall said. “You either learn how to fight or how to run when you grow up in Lowell. This is different. I can’t fight everyone who gives me a hard time.”
Hall said she is always surprised how little people know about plants and flowers, often requesting items that are not available in this area or are out of season. She works toward educating the customer while making their event the most beautiful it can be.
“I always say ‘ I don’t know how this happened to you, but let me help you,’ “ she said.
The Flower Mill is located at 183 Dutton Street, (978) 677-6894, http://www.lowellflowermill.com/