At a time when many businesses have been forced to close or face closing, Lee’s Flower and Card Shop is not only surviving but thriving amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As the oldest Black-owned flower shop in Washington D.C., Lee’s has a survival story that has spanned 75 years.
The owners, sisters Stacie Lee and Kristie Lee Banks, said that despite coronavirus-related challenges, they have recouped losses of the first few months of the pandemic. Determination, they’ve found, has proved a major factor in their success.
“We were determined to stay open,” Stacie Lee Banks said. “Even when they told all non-essential businesses to close, we had the question in our mind: ‘Are we essential or non-essential?’ We didn’t see a list.”
Lee’s Flower and Card Shop continues to bloom as a remnant of DC’s Black Broadway in the ’40s. The Banks sisters have attributed much of their success to their grandparents’ foresight for purchasing the building that still houses the flower shop to this day. The flower shop and a handful of other establishments on U Street remain after 75 years and more, despite major gentrification and race riots during the Civil Rights Movement, as well as today’s new civil rights movement that has brought on protests and demonstrations over police brutality.
The sisters say that surviving the past has given Lee’s tools and tips to overcome similar challenges on the road ahead. That includes recent protests in the aftermath of the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. With nationwide demonstrations over the death of Floyd and other Blacks, looting, too, has taken place in some areas. That includes a break-in and shattering of glass at the business located next door to Lee’s. Instead of boarding the windows, the sisters put “100 percent Black-Owned Business” signs in the windows as their grandparents did during the ’60s.
“We stood on that belief that’s what sustained us back in the ’60s.” Banks said. “And we felt like we will do what our grandparents did, and we just pray that that will still work. And it did.”
Although some nearby suffered damage during the protests, Lee’s Flower and Card Shop remained untouched. Banks continued, “So the history repeated itself, and we were able not to endure any of the lootings again.”
At first, keeping the shop going during the pandemic required severely downsizing staff. In March, the owners had to lay off 75 percent of their team, which was about 14 to 15 employees, leaving only the sisters and two drivers to run the business to stay afloat.
Sticking it out and surviving the pandemic has been particularly difficult for Black-owned businesses across the country. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, more than 40 percent of black-owned enterprises, which is around 440,000, have been shuttered by COVID-19 compared to only 17 percent of white-owned businesses.
“We have lost a number of small black-owned businesses in D.C. There’s no question about that,” said Marie Johns, former deputy administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. Johns is well-versed on the legacy of Lee’s Flower and Card Shop and its long-standing roots. As a leader in DC’s business, civic, and government service for more than 30 years, the CEO of Leftwich Management has valuable insight on what it takes for companies to withstand unprecedented challenges.
“This incredible period that we’re in is unlike anything we’ve experienced before, but also the broader lessons that it shows us about small business success is that resiliency is so important,” Johns said.
Johns is also part of the ReOpen DC Task Group of Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, a group that has in place phased-in reopening guidelines.
“The black business sector in D.C. is such an important part of the flavor of the city. It’s what gives the city so much of its energy and its unique character.” Johns said. And so to lose those businesses; to not help them determine or develop a path of reopening or restarting something new would be a tremendous loss to not only DC, but I’m sure Atlanta and Detroit and cities all around the country.”
Lee’s Flower and Card Shop successfully applied for and received support from the Paycheck Protection Program, which helped them rehire staff and restore jobs in recent months.
Banks said around Mother’s Day the shop “hired everybody back. And it’s been going up and up and up,” she said. “We were up in June, and we thought we would be down because we were missing out on graduation sales, and prom sales…and everything being canceled …. but instead, it was up because of the overwhelming response to just sending flowers and bringing joy to people,” she added. “We looked at our numbers, and we couldn’t believe that they were actually up in June and July.”