Nip It in the Bud

A gentleman entered a busy florist shop that displayed a large sign that read, "Say it with flowers."

"Wrap up one rose," he told the florist.
"Only one?" asked the florist.
"Just one," the customer replied. "I'm a man of few words."

The laughs are few and far between these days at Alpha Floral, where a yellowed copy of this joke is taped to the cash register. In fact, no one who walks in the door, through the thicket of discounted plants and up to the "Final Sale" sign, manages to stammer more than a sentence or two before being struck speechless by what has befallen the family store.

After almost a century in the flower business, the bloom is off this rose.
Alpha Floral has been given thirty days to vacate its storefront at 1521 Cleveland Place. The shop is standing in the way of progress: the new, improved Adam's Mark Hotel.

This is the big box made possible by a $25 million public subsidy, an investment rated so sound that when the Denver Urban Renewal Authority issued the bonds four months ago, they were quickly snapped up--by none other than Fred Kummer, who owns Adam's Mark and its St. Louis-based parent company, HBE Corporation. You would think Kummer could have invested the money directly into his own project and skipped the city middlemen, but that is not the way big business works.

Vern Oppenlander, president of Alpha Floral, wouldn't know about that. His is a family business (his daughter, Janet, is vice president), and it's a small business, the sort that used to give downtown Denver its small-town feel. Like his father Albert before him, Vern has done business on a handshake, not a shakedown. He's a man of few words. A man of his word.

Unlike the folks who occupy the executive suite upstairs at the Adam's Mark.
A year ago, right about the time the city finally surrendered to most of Kummer's demands and paved the way for the destruction of the hyperbolic paraboloid that once housed the May D&F department store, an Adam's Mark representative paid a visit to Alpha Floral. The terms of its lease would be changing, he told Vern Oppenlander. Rent would be going up, he said, and before the Oppenlanders could sign a new, three-year lease, they'd also need to do some redecorating--replace the light fixtures, get new plant stands. And if they needed it, he'd be glad to provide the name of an architect.

That seemed like a pretty expensive proposition for a floral shop that specializes in a dozen roses for $5.95--cash and carry--so Vern went on a month-to-month lease while he thought things over. When the landlord finally provided specifics of the rent increase, it was "way too high," Vern says. He sent over a counterproposal. "We never heard a word back."

Until another HBE representative delivered a letter dated August 30, 1996, and faxed from St. Louis headquarters to Denver. Alpha Floral had thirty days to vacate its space--and don't forget to turn in the keys and leave a forwarding address. But first, be sure to schedule an inspection of the space so the property manager can determine the "condition of the premises."

"They weren't even here when we moved in," says Janet Oppenlander. "How would they know what it looked like?"

Janet has changed some in appearance since then, too. Twenty-six years ago, when the family business consolidated operations in this spot, she was twelve. "All I've known is this floral shop," she says. "It's my life."

That last move also was made because of progress: RTD was tearing down a building at 15th and Broadway, where the Oppenlanders had their store, and constructing a bus station. But that time, Vern says, his old landlord eased the transition. "They treated us like family," he says of RTD officials, "and even helped us move."

Back then, the building the Oppenlanders were moving into housed a Hilton, whose management liked those plant stands enough that they ordered two for the Wickerworks bar. After that, the hotel became a Radisson, then Adam's Mark. And now, a bigger Adam's Mark. "We're in the way," says Vern. He looked at other locations but couldn't find anything downtown that wasn't priced out of the market--and the market isn't looking too hospitable, since Adam's Mark reportedly plans to open its own floral shop in the hotel. So at 77, Vern has decided to call it quits. "We shall reluctantly retire," he and Janet announce in their letter to their faithful customers, with "very fond memories of being your downtown florist for all these 94 years."

In the beginning, there was Alpha Elberfield, who opened a floral store in 1902 at 432 16th Street and named it after himself. Alpha soon moved on to Kansas City and another flower shop, but he left the original behind in Denver. Albert Oppenlander got into the business in 1912, and Vern joined his father 55 years ago. At one point the family had four different shops going, including the big spot in the future home of RTD. Janet remembers taking the bus downtown to help her father and grandfather there. "I don't know if I'll be able to work for another florist," she says.

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