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Monday, February 19 Local

Nielsen's still blooming after 70 years

For five years, Hilda Slattery toiled in a millinery shop in Dublin, Ireland, until she had had enough.

At 21, she made her way to America and so began the story of Nielsen's Florist and Garden shop, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.

Hilda was one of the best buttonhole makers in the Dublin shop -- where she started as an apprentice at 16 -- that also made tailored men's and women's clothing.

She had been working for 75 cents a week and was walking three miles each day to sew bound buttonholes.

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So she left home in 1926 and made her way across the Atlantic Ocean in a time when it was rare for women to set off on their own. Her sister, Mary, already had left Ireland, and was married and living in New Canaan. Mary and her husband paid for Hilda's passage to America

Hilda lived with her aunt and uncle in New York City and worked at a department store. However, she found herself unhappy working as a salesgirl and became a nanny for the Winship family and their three daughters in New Canaan. Hilda would eventually arrange the girls' wedding flowers.

Everything would change when she met Christian Nielsen in Darien. Originally from Denmark, Christian had been working as the groundskeeper at the Fitch's Home for Soldiers in town.

He loved flowers, Hilda told a Darien Review reporter in 1975, and he planted rows of rose bushes on the property.

When the veterans' home was torn down in 1940, Hilda purchased one of Christian's rose bushes and planted it outside of what would become Nielsen's Florist.

They married while Christian was working at a small flower shop owned by the Peterson family. The Petersons were an older couple with plans to retire. At the urging of Christian, Hilda took classes at the New York Botanical Gardens so that they could buy the shop when the Petersons retired.

"Now you really can't be taught to arrange flowers," Hilda said in the 1975 interview. "You have to have a special talent, which can only be developed by experience. However, taking a course does knock off some of the rough edges."

The histories of families in town are interwoven to make up the fabric of Darien's past.

Christian purchased the Peterson's property with a loan from the grandfather of Terrie Wood's husband. Wood is one of Darien's state representatives.

In 1944, Christian and Hilda opened Nielsen's Florist at 1405 Boston Post Road.

"In those days, we worked unbelievably long hours," Hilda said in 1975. "I remember one Easter we started work early Thursday morning and worked continuously until Sunday evening."

But five years later, at the age of 49, Christian died of a heart attack. It was 1949 and Hilda and her only child, Gerald, who was 14, were left to run the store on their own.

In the years that followed, Al Palmer -- of Palmer's Market and a childhood friend of Gerald -- said that Hilda often could be found in the back of the store working on an arrangement on a counter that was burned from the cigarettes she smoked "incessantly." Often, Palmer said, the cigarette would be hanging from her mouth with a growing ash at the end.

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Many of Palmer's and Gerald Nielson's friends from high school, including Jack Keese and Peter Corbett, worked in the store.

"The town benefits from places like Nielsen's," Palmer said. "The people who live in the town and work in the town and have a business in the town are the ones who contribute more than anyone else."

Years later, Gerald attended the University of Connecticut, which at the time was solely an agriculture school, for a year before returning home to help his mother with the store.

Sandy Nielsen-Bauman, one of Gerald's daughters, said that her father knew most of what was being taught in his horticulture classes from years of working in the store.

While working with his mother, Gerald started a job in real estate development with George Calvi -- uncle to Bob Calvi, the owner of Fox Hill Builders. Gerald teamed up with Palmer and Fred and George Calvi to develop hotels in the 1960s and 1970s, while Hilda continued to manage the store.

The garden shop had been developed during the late 1940s and became much larger than the original small flower store it once was. An additional flower shop was built in the late 1940s and 1950s.

"And the business putted along," Nielsen-Baumann said.

She is now the "custodian," as she said, of the business and oversees the store. She and her three siblings, Gerald Nielsen Jr., Tami Whittier and Karen Kuehler, all of whom live in Darien, co-own the store.

Throughout the 1980s, the development of the Thorndal Circle Office Park was Gerald Sr.'s focus. Peter Saverine took over as the store manager until 1991.

The Nielsens would resume day-to-day oversight of the store in 1992. Nielsen-Baumann went home to Darien before leaving for graduate school in the fall.

"My father said to me, `Why don't you just go in and work in the store for a couple of weeks before you leave,' " Nielsen-Baumann said. "Growing up working in the store, I realized there were a couple things that were not working so well. So I chose to defer going to graduate school and found it a very big challenge, but there was a lot of work to be done."

Nielsen-Baumann would never attend graduate school.

At that point, the building was in "serious disrepair," she said. The temperature in the two massive Lord and Burnham greenhouses, which were built in the 1940s, proved to be a challenge to maintain.

"The cost to heat the greenhouses was through the roof; they needed a lot of repairs," Nielsen-Baumann said. "The building itself had been added onto and added onto."

One of the greenhouses connected the garden and flower shop, which required two separate staffs to man each store.

Following years of conversations with Gerald Sr., reconstruction began, but the store never closed for a single day. The construction was completed in 1999 and designed by New Canaan's Becker and Becker.

"It was tired," Nielsen-Baumann said of the old building. "It was definitely tired."

But renovations are never complete, Nielsen-Baumann said, and work is continuously done to keep the store fresh and current.

But the floral industry has struggled since the early 1990s. There was a time when the number of standalone florists was on the rise. In 1962, there were 13,267 florists and, by 1992, there were 27,341 in the United States.

The floral industry peaked, though, in the early '90s. By 2002, there would be 22,750 florists and, in 2011, only 16,182 remain, according to the 2012 Floriculture Crops Summary. From 2005 to 2013, there was a 45 percent decrease in florists across the country.

In the past 10 years alone, the industry has changed dramatically, Nielsen-Baumann said.

Skyrocketing prices for oil needed to heat the greenhouses and the introduction of companies, such as 1-800-Flowers and big-box stores, including Costco and Whole Foods, created strong competition for the independent florist.

Nielsen's has strived to stay current with changing trends.

"The reason why a lot of these florist shops close is they didn't change and they didn't keep up with the trends and that every supermarket you walk into sells flowers," Nielsen-Baumann said. "What's going to make someone make an extra stop? You just have to differentiate yourself."

Around 2008, Nielsen's Florist and Garden Shop began offering more than just fresh flowers and plants, knowing that it needed to stand out against the six florists and three supermarkets in town.

So it started to offer home goods, accessories and accent furniture.

"People spontaneously buy it," Raya Ward, Nielsen's office manager and marketing coordinator, said about the jewelry that is on display.

"We offer a superior product and superior service," Nielsen-Baumann said.

The store also generated a large customer email list to allow for cost-effective and direct marketing.

In 2007, Michael Joseph's Catering moved into the space next to the shop that once was the original building as a way to provide an even greater customer service experience.

Even with the continuously declining number of independent florists, the chances of family businesses succeeding generation to generation also presents a challenge to Nielsen's.

According to the Family Business Institute, 30 percent succeed from the first to second generations; 13 percent from the second to third; and only 3 percent of family businesses succeed from third to fourth. Nielsen's is now in its third generation.

"I'm really proud to be the custodian of this business for this generation," Nielsen-Baumann said. "It's got a rich history. It's gone through some tough times, it's gone through some great times."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews