A tale of two flower kiosks at Budapest’s Jászai Mari Square
Photo : Norbert Juhász/We Love Budapest
12/2/2016, 3:46 AM●7-minute article
Approaching downtown Pest’s building-lined Grand Boulevard from statuesque Margaret Bridge, the roadway bisects a beloved riverfront park: Jászai Mari Square. Surrounding this tree-shaded open space, architecturally enchanting edifices house several shops and restaurants, including some enduring businesses alongside freshly opened stores that pop up from time to time… but for decades now, a pair of colorfully fragrant stalls flank this gateway to the city center, continually withstanding the test of time while contending for flower-seeking customers day and night.
Lying on the edges of two adjacent Budapest districts – V and XIII – a pair of colorful kiosks are located right across the street from each other, both surrounded by the aroma of fragrant flowers mingling in the air, and both adding to the urban landscape with vibrantly hued mountains of blooms. These unpretentious stalls may not conform to modern flower-shop trends, but if you ask Budapest residents about Jászai Mari Square’s nondescript timber huts, most locals know about their long-term existence, and many of them stopped by one or both of them at least once to poke around, or to pick up a sweet-scented bouquet on the way to a momentous occasion.
On these opposing sides of the Jászai Mari Square tram stop on St. Stephen’s Boulevard (the northernmost stretch of Pest’s Grand Boulevard), the two vendors gracefully fight the elements to serve a considerable customer base every day, and even at night – for quite a long time, both shops were open simultaneously 24 hours a day, all year round. However, although these two identical businesses operate so close to each other, according to the owners of both kiosks, they have never been in direct competition; instead the duo peacefully coexists amid the ever-changing urban environment.
“My father started the business, and my family has been around this stall for more than 45 years,” said Alexandra Török, the owner of Jászai Virág non-stop on the District XIII side of the street. This tiny lattice-lined kiosk offers a humongous assortment of festive merchandise – and we were surprised to learn that the logistical challenge of storing it all is why the business is kept open 24/7. “At one point we could no longer store all of our merchandise inside, and our best option to keep a good selection was to permanently place many of the products right in front of the shop,” explained Alexandra, who recently took over the business from the previous generation. “Our main focus is flowers – we never wanted to get into a situation where we offer all sorts of different stock that I see at many recently opened flower stores. We are proud of our extensive selection, and I believe that’s part of the reason why our customers like us.”
But is it profitable to keep a business running around the clock when the product doesn’t satisfy fundamental human needs, and has little to do with nightlife? “Since we are at one of Budapest’s key transport hubs, luckily business is buzzing year round,” Alexandra says. “Whether it’s an early Sunday afternoon, or 2am on a Wednesday night, there’s always life around the stall, with an intriguing mix of customers popping in to find the perfect gift for a birthday, a date, or any occasion.”
As we talk on a windy Thursday evening, customers flock to the stall one after the other, causing us to pause our conversation for a while. Alexandra serves everyone with a smile, handing over a pastel pink rose to an elderly man seemingly in a rush to attend an event. “What was the last thing you said?” Alexandra asks when she returns, before continuing. “Sure, at night business slows down slightly, but don’t think that nobody needs flowers during those hours! It’s that time when young men rush into the store to get a bouquet of roses for their girlfriends, because, you know, they just had an argument, and they want to apologize”.
But business is not always rosy during the hours of darkness. That’s the time when bad intentions bloom, and sometimes this friendly flower stall becomes the target of delinquents. “On several occasions, customers tried to pay with counterfeit money. There was a guy who attempted this more than one time,” answered Alexandra to our question about the most common crimes she came across during her time here. “Some people try to steal, especially some of the drunkards. Once, a passerby suddenly picked up a flower from the vase outside the stall, and just walked on. Luckily, my night staff immediately caught the thief.” Such stories explain why we always see a brawny salesman operating the kiosk in the late-night hours.
When in school, Alexandra remembers that she used to rush to the store to give a helping hand to her parents after classes. “I’ve been born into this business, this is my passion now,” she said – and she has every reason to be enthusiastic about her job. Over the years, the young vendor has encountered numerous lovely stories that are especially dear to her heart. “We have many regular customers,” Alexandra says, “like the guy who has been purchasing from us for a long time for various occasions; he never fails to buy a red rose for his wife. … Another one of them is an elderly lady, who orders a bouquet of tulips every single week. By the way, tulips are our bestseller – in an average week we sell 300 of them.” Now that’s what we call a blossoming business!
When we asked whether the flower stall on the opposite side of the road hurts Alexandra’s business, she quite tactfully replied, “They have a distinct profile, with different customers and merchandise.” As we concluded our conversation, we looked around the fragrant kiosk one more time, soaking in the multicolored settings of crimson roses, pastel tulips, purple orchids, and all of the other perfumed flora that surround Alexandra and her family for nearly five decades now.
These variegated memories were still in mind when we approached the second kiosk on the opposite side of the road, right next to the northernmost stop for Pest’s tram 2, and as we came closer we could immediately tell that this place would present a different picture of life and history here on Jászai Mari Square. In addition to all of the pretty petals outside, the stand caught our eye with its ornate wreaths mounted side-by-side on its outer walls, with some of them placed above fruity merchandise. As we were about to open the door, the shopkeeper greeted us with a warm smile before ushering us inside.
Szilvia Szelváné Szabó has a long past with this little downtown outlet, and during our conversation, we can tell that her career here has sometimes been challenging. “I was the first round-the-clock florist in Budapest when I kick-started my business 27 years ago. Since then a lot has changed, and regrettably I was also affected by the new trading rules that changed the shops’ opening hours,” said Szilvia, who added that she nownormally keeps the place open until 10pm, but if she is around later at night, she never turns away after-hours customers.
As we peek around, we observe that unlike the other kiosk across the road, here the business is not only about fresh blooms, but features a mix of merchandise including chocolates, champagne, and small baubles. “Certainly a lot has changed during the past decades,” the owner continued. “When I first came here this square was the hub of Budapest’s dark underworld, and my regular customers included some of these bad-faced guys, who always carried a thick wad of cash in their pockets. But those days are gone – the square has been cleaned up, and now flowers are considered to be a luxury product,” Szilvia said, with a little pain evident in her eyes; it was very difficult to tell if she preferred to operate the business during the old times or today.
While Szilvia was recalling this bygone era as one of her staff members took care of business, good memories suddenly flooded her mind, and her melancholy promptly turned into joy as she started describing her career highlights. According to the vendor, her small business served several high-profile customers – they were honored to bind brilliant bouquets for Michael Jackson and Tina Turner when these superstars visited the Hungarian capital, something that Szilvia will never forget.
Whether it’s due to its strategic location or the accommodating spirit of the staff, this petite hut also serves as a handy information booth for many Budapest tourists who often cross this lively traffic junction, and the owner hopes that they can continue serving everyone who needs flowers (or directions to city landmarks) for a long time after she hands over the business to her son, whom she hopes will keep the business flourishing for generations to come.
If this familial handover comes to pass, we optimistically presume that the other kiosk across the street will also still be around decades from now, as both of them timelessly provide fresh flowers and merry moments for people of the Magyar metropolis.