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Making It | Neil Mendeloff of Plantworks

For every East Village business that’s opening or closing, dozens are quietly making it. Here’s one of them: Plantworks.

plantworksShira Levine

It ain’t easy being green. Neil Mendeloff, a onetime Parks Department employee, and his wife Verna, a terrarium and bonsai specialist, opened Plantworks on Mercer Street some 38 years ago; it moved to Waverly Place two years later and eventually put down roots at 28 East Fourth Street, where for the past 28 years it has helped beautify many a Manhattan home, university, restaurant, government building and hotel. But now, Mr. Mendeloff says, his rent may double. Unless his landlord extends an olive branch, his lush wonderland of Florida palm trees, Japanese maples, and Oregon pines could end up buried six feet under. We asked him how he’s managed to make it this far.


You have a lot of space in the heart of some high-traffic blocks. What are you working with size- and price-wise?


I’ve got about 3,600 square feet here and started out paying about $2,800 a month. We’ve been up to about $15,000 a month recently. There have been slight reductions during recessionary times though. I also have the yard next door and have a separate landlord for that which is an additional cost. It’s an additional $6,000 a month. Read more…

Sunny Blossoms on Second Avenue

Sunny's FloristSun Ja Hwong runs Sunny’s Florist shop on 2nd Avenue and 6th Street. Her unassuming nature and beautiful flowers have kept her in business in the East Village for 23 years. Rachel Ohm

To people worn out by the din of honking taxis, the manic bustle of sidewalk life and the seemingly endless effort required this winter to negotiate snow drifts and slush puddles, Sunny’s Florist on Sixth Street and Second Avenue may appear to be a verdant oasis, and a signal of the approaching spring.

Pedestrians pause at the counter on Second Avenue, surrounded by a display of tulips, hyacinths and hydrangeas that crowds the corner of the sidewalk. Sun Ja Hwong, 55, the shop’s owner, stands in the narrow vestibule behind the counter, where there is just enough room for a space heater in the winter.

She cuts and arranges the flowers and wraps the bouquets in purple tissue paper. Behind her stretch rows of longer-stemmed flowers in white buckets – roses, chrysanthemums, calendulas and orchids. Most nights the shop casts its warm light on the street until midnight, a later hour than most florists keep.

“People pass by and think, ‘Am I in Paris?’” Ms. Hwong said recently. “’Am I in England? Am I in Tokyo?’”

Although she has never been to any of these places, Ms. Hwong says her arrangements reflect the styles of Tokyo and Paris, or at least what she imagines those styles to be.

The tiny shop was opened 23 years ago by Ms. Hwong’s first husband, who at one point owned seven florists in the city. She worked as a paralegal for ten years before taking over the East Village store, the only one still in existence.

Maybe that is partly due to its location, on one of the more trafficked blocks in the neighborhood. “The people here know the flowers,” she said. “When I make an arrangement they know how to appreciate it.”

Only when weather is bad is business slow. “I try to close at nine, but it is the busiest time,” she said. “At ten, at eleven it is still busy.”

Ms. Hwong said she sees herself as a “mother of flowers” and that when she closes the shop each night she feels like they are calling her name and asking her not to leave.

It would be impossible for this mother to have a favorite flower. She brings different blooms home every week to see how long arrangements will last after she gets the flowers shipped from Europe and South America.

Once, a customer who had seen Sunny’s Florist reviewed with five stars on Yelp, told Ms. Hwong her shop deserved six stars. Ms. Hwong, who was not familiar with the site, did not know that five stars is the highest possible rating. She wondered what she could do to obtain that elusive sixth star and asked her son.

He laughed. “You are so humble,” he said. “That is why your shop has five stars. Don’t change anything.”