Cossairt Florist to celebrate 125 years
“We’ve been in flowers an awful long time.”
The Cossairt Florist will celebrate its 125th anniversary this summer.
Shop owner and fourth-generation florist Jim Cossairt retold the history of the shop.
“After my great-grandparents moved to Shelbyville, we had a greenhouse,” Cossairt said. “Great-Grandpa was a truck farmer. He would grow vegetables primarily and he would start these in his greenhouse, and then he would sell these off of a horse-drawn cart around town.”
The Cossairt family owned the greenhouse prior opening a flower shop. The greenhouse was originally located on the north side of Boggstown Road, but then in the 1890s the greenhouse moved to its present location.
“Great-Grandma had a hobby of growing flowers, I mean people had done that for hundreds of years, and she had an abundance of geraniums one day and said ‘hey, why don’t you put these on the cart when you’re around town and try to sell the geraniums?’ And that was very well received,” Cossairt said.
“At some point in time, and we don’t really know, we don’t know what day this geraniums on the vegetable cart took place, we just know at some point in time they decided ‘we should be doing a lot more flowers and less vegetables,’” he said. “There’s nobody alive who remembers when we weren’t doing flowers primarily. That generation has passed.”
Cossairt said his family opened the first store front on the corner of South Harrison and West Jackson Street.
“Most people would recognize the Hub Shoe Store was right there on the corner,” he said. “[My family] just had a part of the front of that. It was rented space. At the time, there was a Western Union office in there. For transmitting orders to other florists in other cities – not everyone had telephones, this was in 1914 – The Western Union was a handy way to transport orders.”
After being there for five years, the Cossiart Family built their own shop at 38 West Broadway in December 1919.
“We were there for like 85 years, and the city expanded the fire station in the early 2000s, and they took and used our spot, and several other businesses as well,” Cossairt said.
So they moved out to the current location at 135 W. Boggstown Road in 2005. The 125-year old greenhouse is at this location too.
Cossairt believes his business is the oldest Shelbyville business still run by the same family. He took over management in 1982, but he’s been working full-time since he was still in school, 1976.
“Originally I was working at the greenhouse, that was my focus and my daily duties,” he said. “But I did help at the flower shop, which was on Broadway at the time. They’d get short on delivery and need extra help, so I’d come over and help their other driver deliver. They’d send me to Indianapolis to get flowers. We did a lot of errands and stuff for the shop. I’d help on holidays, too.”
“We took over management in ’82,” he said. “It’ll be 39 years now.”
Cossairt has four siblings, but he didn’t have to fight them to take over the shop. He said he didn’t think they had any interest in taking it over, and they all moved away.
“They do occasionally help out,” he said. “I have a brother who worked here last spring for a couple of months, and I think he’s going to come back this spring to help. He’s retired and has free time.”
The business came to him through his father. Cossairt said in his earliest memory, the business was owned by his dad, his uncle and one of his dad’s cousins.
“The uncle finally passes, this is back in the ’70s, and later on in the early ’80s his cousin and her husband retired, so we were faced with a decision,” Cossairt said. “There wasn’t anybody else in the family who necessarily wanted to stay in the business, so what were we going to do? Mom and Dad were working in the greenhouse, doing all the greenhouse stuff, and I’m just in my early 20s, thinking ‘what are we going to do?’”
His dad decided to take ownership of the whole operation. When this happened, Cossairt took over the flowership and his dad worked at the greenhouse.
“Dad worked well into retirement to give me the opportunity to do this, and I think it’s worked out alright,” he said. “Any business has to endure so many changes and things you would never foresee.”
Prior to taking over the flower shop, Cossairt attended Dupage Horticulture School on the westside of Chicago, where he studied plants. The school is no longer open.
“They had a one-year program aimed specifically at greenhouse growing, so I took the one year course and learned a lot of things that were very helpful,” he said. “It was a great experience.”
Some of the changes the Cossairt Florist has seen since being founded include the invention of the telephone, changes in transportation, new genetically-modified flowers, and the Internet.
“So many things have transpired in my lifetime,” Cossairt said. “I don’t know where to begin. Back earlier in the 20th century, there was a time where the generation before me would tell me they could remember when there were lots of local greenhouses. This was the days before interstates were built and truck transportation was so common. Certainly in the days before air travel and air cargo was common, so things had to be grown locally to supply local markets.”
He said as time passed and modes of transportation changed, his shop was able to fly flowers in from South America and bring them in from Florida on trucks. Cossairt said Florida doesn’t export flowers like it used to because most of the land is used for development now.
“California still exports flowers across the country, but most of our flowers come out of South America, where the cost of production is low and transportation normally is very reliable and very quick,” he said. “Obviously, how orders get transmitted to other cities has changed. When I first started, it would’ve been a phone call. The only way we could contact another florist was by finding a listing in the directory, and physically talking to another flower shop.”
“And then the means to use a dedicated system to transmit orders electronically came out in the ’80s, and so we got onto that,” Cossairt added. “So we used our Mercury System. It felt like what you would call an email now. You put in their number and typed in what you needed to send them and gave them a value with it.”
Cossairt said they still use that system, but now they also Google other flower shops in different areas.
The flowers have changed too.
“A lot of the things we sell will change as tastes and trends and colors – sometimes you’ll see times where certain colors are more popular,” he said. “Back in the ’80s, pink and mauve was so popular it’s crazy. We had so many arrangements of pinks and mauves.”
“They’ve improved the varieties on almost every flower,” he added. “Roses used to have a reputation of not lasting very long. If you get a fresh rose of a new variety they can last a surprisingly long time. They’ve improved the genetics on these flowers, much like agricultural crops get improved for more resilience and higher yields. They improved ornamental crops the same way.”
And on the topic of changes, the coronavirus was a “roller coaster” for the Cossairt Florist.
“March and April were unbelievably, historically poor sales times,” Cossairt said. “We remained open through that time, but we did close the showroom. We still took Internet and phone orders and we delivered. We tried to do no-contact deliveries.”
The Cossairt Florist still offers no-contact delivery.
“But plant demand in the spring was unbelievably high,” he added. “With people not traveling and having more money to spend and staying home, a lot of people planted gardens and decorated around their house more, and worked on home improvement projects.”
Including flower sales.
“It was the closest we ever came to actually selling out,” Cossairt said. “We had less leftover into the summer than we had ever seen.”
Cossairt Florist is already planning for next year, having placed orders in September. Those orders should arrive within the next 10 days. The greenhouse also has lots of potted seeds.
Cossairt and his family will celebrate their 125th anniversary later in the summer, COVID allowing.