“Mr. Van feeds ’em chili peppers,” an older man, chatting up a pair of two-and-a-half-foot-tall macaws, informs a buddy as they wait for a bus outside Pearson’s Florist on the corner of North Charles and North Avenue. “Makes them talk more.”
“It does,” Vander Pearson, the longtime shop owner, confirms later, adding friends “Shiloh” and “Partner” have served as his sidewalk welcoming committee for five and 10 years, respectively. “I got them to keep me company. I take them out of the cage when I bring them inside so they can stretch their wings.” Every few days or so, “Mr. Van” likes to hold the big birds on his lap, careful to mind their beaks as he strokes their bellies.
The soft-spoken, but steadfast Pearson, 59, opened his storefront at the crosshair intersection that divides East and West Baltimore almost four decades ago. A Rite-Aid and a Payless shoe store were across the street back then, as well as a men’s clothing store, which burned to the ground and is now the site of the repurposed Ynot Lot. There was also the bank, the shuttered building where Gov. Larry Hogan stuck his temporary Baltimore reelection office, but not before pasting over a rooftop billboard that read “Whoever Died From a Rough Ride?”—a reminder of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.
O’Dell’s, a popular, if notorious, disco—one owner was involved in a major heroin ring, and shootings outside the club were not uncommon—let loose a few doors down before closing in 1992. In fact, the cozy flower shop earned its 15 minutes of fame during season two of The Wire, essentially standing in for itself when Bodie came in to buy a funeral arrangement after “co-worker” D’Angelo Barksdale was killed. (On cue, as we’re discussing The Wire filming, a young man enters right before closing and asks for a dozen roses, which he pays for after pulling a baseball-sized roll of $20 and $100 bills from his jacket.) “There was foot traffic the first five years, but it was a little chaotic, especially with O’Dell’s,” says Pearson, who has witnessed the blossoming of Station North, including the renovation of the historic Parkway Theatre directly out his window, from the best possible perch. “Between 1987 and 1992, everything left. But no, never thought of leaving. People kept coming to see me. A scared man can’t win anyhow.”
When the Maryland Institute College of Art bought the old Jos. A. Bank building and transformed it into a graduate center, Pearson noticed a turn. College kids with drawing assignments began showing up to buy day-old flowers, which he gladly gave away.
Pearson got his start in the flower trade at 12, unloading deliveries at Crip’s Family Florist in West Baltimore. After moving to the east side, he began working at wholesale florist Claymore C. Sieck. In 1981, with Easter and Mother’s Day falling close together, he scraped together as much cash as he could, bought as many roses as he could from his employer, and sold them himself at the corner of North Avenue and Harford Road. He netted $6,000 those holiday Sundays and spotted a “for rent” sign in the window of his now-back room.
For years, he pulled his early shift at Sieck’s before opening his own shop in the afternoon. A lifelong bachelor, he still arranges every order personally and occasionally spends nights at the shop when orders keep him swamped.
“I learned from Mr. Crip. I’d add a flower or two to an arrangement he’d been working on,” Pearson says, referring to Clarence Crip, the late respected West Baltimore flower man. “He let me know if he didn’t like it, which hurt my feelings, but I learned. He told me to think of a bouquet as a canvas and you’re making a painting. That stuck with me.”
Recently, with his 60th birthday upcoming this March, Pearson got his first passport. Having seen it all, he wants to see something else.
“I watch the Travel Channel,” he says. “I’ve put a little money aside. After prom season, I plan to take a cruise to see the Alaskan glaciers. Then, I want to hike the Alps and visit Rome.” Working late hours and living alone all these years—dinner has often meant a sandwich or bowl of cereal before bed—he also intends to visit Paris. “I watch the Food Channel, too.”