Janice Oberg-Barrett has been surrounded by flowers her entire life. Now, after 42 years as the owner of Belle Flora, a flower and home decor shop at 1201 N. State St. in Bellingham, the Whatcom County florist is retiring.
Oberg-Barrett, 63, sold her business in November 2011 to new owner Starlene Cook-Stockmann of Camano Island.
Belle Flora will still be the same store customers have known for more than four decades, Cook-Stockmann said. All the designers will remain, and business should continue as usual, she said.
“The designers here are awesome,” Cook-Stockmann said. “They know what they’re doing, and they know their customers.”
In her long career, Oberg-Barrett has overseen major changes in her store and has adapted to shifting trends and demands in the floral industry.
She said she always enjoyed the variety of her day-to-day work schedule, but simply working with flowers was her biggest joy.
“You cannot duplicate the smell of a flower shop. That I’ll miss,” she said. “In one day you could be doing three or four major events in people’s lives, you never knew when you went through that door. That’s why I loved it.”
Oberg-Barrett bought the shop in 1970 from her parents, Alex and Pearl Gitts. At that time, the business was located in Ferndale and known as Red Top Floral and Nursery. Oberg-Barrett said she inherited her love of flowers from her parents.
“I just grew up rolling ribbons into mud puddles and running through greenhouses,” she said. “That was my life then.”
Taking on the family business at 21 years old was difficult enough, she said, but establishing herself as a young female business owner in the ‘70s was a bigger uphill battle.
She said banks wouldn’t give her a credit card due to her age and gender. Her father had to co-sign the $7,500 loan she used to buy the shop from him and her mother. She struggled to be taken seriously in an era when small-business ownership was dominated by men, she said.
“I had my business, but it didn’t matter because I was a woman,” Oberg-Barrett said. “That bothered me.”
She found success as a florist, establishing renown as a talented designer with heed for personal service and quality products.
Oberg-Barrett said keeping her customers happy was the key to her success. As a florist, it was vital to design arrangements that catered to each person individually, she said.
“If you have one person unhappy, they’ll tell 10 people,” Oberg-Barrett said. “It can really hurt your reputation.”
In 1986, she moved the store from Ferndale into a building on Lakeway Drive in Bellingham, which was formerly used as a fast-food restaurant. The unusual setting served a useful purpose. Oberg-Barrett was able to sell both flowers and coffee to customers through the building’s drive-up window.
She moved the shop to its current location on the ground floor of the Daylight Building on State Street in 2000. The new spot gave the store more space and a more positive ambiance, Oberg-Barrett said.
The move also brought a name change.
Red Top had always referenced the Ferndale intersection her parents’ original store was once located on. Oberg-Barrett said she just couldn’t picture the same name on a store in downtown Bellingham.
With help from her longtime store manager Lois Woolcock, she decided on Belle Flora: belle, a French word for beautiful, and flora, Italian for flowers.
The store sits in the corner of the Daylight Building, with large glass windows facing State and Chestnut streets.
On bright hardwood floors, various tables laid with home decor items fit into the front end, with a flora design and packaging work area situated in the rear.
Cook-Stockmann said she was enamored with the store when she first toured it in August 2011.
“I love it. I want it. This store is me,” Cook-Stockmann said. “That is what I was thinking.”
As a former bookkeeper and partial-owner of Bristol Bay Contractors in King Salmon, Alaska, Cook-Stockmann said she wanted to return to the floral business.
She previously owned the now-closed Huckleberry House floral shop in Long Beach, Wash., which she sold 10 years ago.
Cook-Stockmann said Oberg-Barrett had a great mix of charm, energy and business sense.
“She’s very vivacious and active and bright and sparkly,” she said. “But at the same time, she’s a strong business woman.”
Oberg-Barrett said her experienced staff deserve a lot of credit for the shop’s success.
Knowing the people who work for you, learning to delegate and being willing to devote as much as your own time and energy as possible are keys to owning a small business, she said.
Store manager Tatum Brown said Oberg-Barrett maintained close friendships with her employees.
Brown said the day-to-day work flow at Belle Flora has given her many opportunities to be creative.
“There’s always something different,” Brown said. “It allows for an artistic outlet.”
Oberg-Barrett said the future was bright for local floral shops.
Even with increasing competition from discount floral sections in large grocery stores, Oberg-Barrett said she thinks there will always be demand for stores such as Belle Flora.
“People are always going to want a local florist,” she said. “They want quality.”
Photos by Brian Corey