HAGERSTOWN — Pat O’Brien was a long-haired college hippie driving a flower delivery truck on weekends in 1973 when opportunity came.
Ben Bostion, the longtime manager of the flower shop where they both worked, decided he wanted to open his own florist business and offered to partner with the much younger O’Brien.
“I was 20 years old. Ben was probably 50. I’m sure people told him he was crazy,” O’Brien recalled last week.
But together, they made Ben’s Flower Shop a success in downtown Hagerstown and now, 39 years after it opened, Ben’s is about to begin a new adventure.
This one, which O’Brien called “bittersweet,” is that Ben’s is selling its 49-53 S. Potomac St. building and plans to move its business to Long Meadow Shopping Center in the city’s North End.
The shopping center’s large parking lot will give the florist shop what it lacks now — lots of close-in parking. The shop didn’t need that so much over the years, when most of its customers phoned in their orders.
In today’s economy, shops such as his “need to get every order that you can. I mean, you can’t just survive any longer on your telephone and not have walk-in customers,” O’Brien said.
“I mean, I just need to get to a place where it’s easier for families to get in, brides to get in,” he said.
The decision to move, which he began thinking seriously of about five years ago, was made easier recently when a business tenant offered to buy the building, O’Brien said.
He said he has a buyer for the 53 S. Potomac St. building.
“I just needed to take that opportunity to move,” O’Brien said. “It’s an older building, needs a lot of work. I’m just not producing enough revenue to keep the building up.”
O’Brien said he’s planning to move the florist shop sometime this fall.
Leaving will be difficult not only for the “logistical nightmare” it creates for his business, but also because of the memories it will stir.
Bostion and O’Brien first opened their shop on Dec. 13, 1973, in a storefront they rented at 43 S. Potomac St.
Five years later, they bought the big building at 49-53 S. Potomac St. from the Eagles Club. The building had been empty for years, O’Brien said.
Making it ready for the florist shop and making the business successful took long hours, with no small measure of craziness, O’Brien said.
“We worked,” he said, emphasizing “worked.”
“All-nighters, a lot of those. It was nothing back then to pull all-nighters,” he said. “One time, Christmastime, I had nine hours’ sleep in five days. We were filling orders. ... That’s the truth. Nine hours in five days.”
While O’Brien got married, got a house and was raising a family, Bostion was living on the third floor of their shop’s building. The florist shop and all of its supplies occupied the first two floors.
Bostion’s third-floor residence was like a little kingdom, O’Brien said.
“He fixed that place up there, had a roof garden, had several nice antiques all around,” he said. “It was a nice apartment.”
O’Brien hadn’t planned at all on becoming a shop owner.
After high school, he and a “hippie” friend traveled across the nation and before he dropped out of college, O’Brien said, he had figured on working in special education, as his mother had done for years as director of Kemp Horn, a vocational facility near Smithsburg.
As a businessman, O’Brien transitioned, but slowly.
“I guess gradually, my real long hair became that of a more normal haircut,” he said.
In the early 1990s, when Bostion was ready to retire, he sold his share of the business to O’Brien. Bostion died in 1995.
‘It’s been awesome’
Working downtown has been like working among family, O’Brien said.
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” he said. “The people — the employees, the customers, the downtown characters. It’s been awesome.”
Over the years, he said, he’s been fortunate to get to know a lot of other downtown business owners.
Among them, he said, is Bill Clowser, who owns Bikle’s Ski Shop at 7 N. Potomac St., and “has probably been down here, individually, longer than anybody. I think Bill was with his daddy in the shoe store about the same time that I opened up here.”
Another is Carol Moller, who owned Carol & Company gift shop on West Washington Street for several years. Before opening that business, Moller worked at Ben’s — she “did my wedding work. She made all the corsages and wedding bouquets and all that,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien, who is 59, is looking at his upcoming move as the opening to his shop’s next opportunity, not the closing of anything.
“I’ve been here long enough,” he said of downtown. “I’ve seen several periods of renaissance. I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go. Right now, it’s coming back. It’s better.”
And at Long Meadow, “I’m just looking at when I go out there, starting it again,” he said. “I’m going to see what I can do with 10 more years out there. I’m not going to sit back and take it easy.”