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Soon to Close, Sally's Flower Shop Is a Winooski Institution

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Sally Tipson working on an arrangement - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Sally Tipson working on an arrangement

At Winooski's only florist, the rhythm of the year is marked by blooms: roses for Valentine's Day, lilies at Easter, spring bouquets for Mother's Day and carnations for prom corsages. The annual cycle of Sally's Flower Shop comes to its close with a festive display of poinsettias. Pots of deep-green leaves crowned in vibrant colors — crimson, pink and fuchsia — all but announce that Christmastime is here.

This season, wreaths and ornaments decorate the shop on Main Street, and teddy bears are decked out in red ribbons. A dove figurine peeks out from a bouquet of red carnations and mini-poinsettias, paired with white Christmas mums, pine cones and greens.

Normally, the annual cycle of Sally's would pick up again in January and build to the busiest flower holiday of the year: Valentine's Day. But not this year. Leftover wreaths will be packed up along with spools of ribbon, empty vases and stacks of paperwork — and owner Sally Tipson will close her shop for good on Christmas Eve.

Tipson, 77, opened Sally's with her late husband, Skip, 29 years ago. "It's time," she said. "I got to the point where I knew I couldn't do it anymore. The body doesn't want to move like it did 10 years ago, 20 years ago."

Tipson is a lifelong Winooski resident whose contributions to her hometown go far beyond running a flower business. She served on the city council from 2009 to 2015 and was deputy mayor for four of those years. She chaired the board of the Winooski Food Shelf and served on a restorative justice panel.

In 2004, Tipson spearheaded an initiative called Season's Greetings, for which volunteers team up to decorate the town for the holidays. This good-cheer effort continues today and includes the annual October Festival of Pumpkins, in which hundreds of candlelit jack-o'-lanterns light up Winooski.

"It takes a village," said Chris Frenette, a friend of Tipson's who works part time at the flower shop. "And Sally's the leader of the pack."

Sally and Skip Tipson weren't planning to get into the flower business in 1984 when they visited Floral Emporium, a wholesale flower company in Winooski. Sally had been running a home ceramics studio with her neighbor; the couple was looking for a new location to expand that business. Instead, the Tipsons decided to buy Floral Emporium itself.

"It was an adventure," Tipson said. "It was completely on-the-job training. I don't know if I'd do it again: just jumping in and getting your feet wet."

An arrangement at Sally's Flower Shop - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • An arrangement at Sally's Flower Shop

The Tipsons ran Floral Emporium for eight years before moving a few blocks north on Main Street. There, they changed the business' name to Sally's Flower Shop and transformed it into a retail store. Together, the couple raised sons Scott and Kyle and managed their small business. Tipson has owned and operated the store on her own since Skip's death in 1995.

Tom Brennan, a former University of Vermont men's basketball coach, was a loyal customer of Sally's Flower Shop. "That lady is an angel," he said of Tipson.

"When I was at UVM, I'd always get myself in jams, and I'd have to send flowers to people," Brennan continued. "Originally, the flowers were just mea culpas."

They became more than that for the recipients. "Her arrangements were so spectacular that I never sent flowers to anyone when they didn't say, 'Oh, my God. I got the most beautiful arrangement,'" Brennan said.

An ample supply of flowers, sourced from South America via Green Mountain Florist Supply in South Burlington, keeps Sally's in blooms year-round. Tipson herself is fond of bringing home tulips in the winter — in every color and for no occasion. "They're springy and happy," she said of her favorite flower.

But the defining feature of Sally's Flower Shop is "more than flowers," Tipson said. "It's what flowers do for people. They bring joy. They bring happiness."

Flowers also bring beauty and meaning to occasions such as weddings, anniversaries and graduations. Tipson found particular gratification in providing flowers for funerals.

"I truly enjoy funeral work," she said. In years past, that might have meant supplying large numbers of flowers for wakes that spanned two days. These days, flowers for a funeral could be one piece at the front of a church.

"The hardest ones to work with are folks who have lost a child," Tipson said. "Sometimes you just have to listen."

Tipson, the youngest of the three children of Ethel and Fred LaFerriere, grew up on Franklin Street in the first of three houses in Winooski where she's lived throughout her lifetime. Her father worked at the woolen mill, and her mother was a cook at Trinity College.

Sally Tipson - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Sally Tipson

Through her mother's job, Tipson was eligible for free tuition at Trinity. She earned a teaching degree there in 1966 and returned to her alma mater, Winooski High School, to teach.

That's where Tipson first met Frenette, who's now her employee; she was Frenette's social studies teacher. The 68-year-old former student has fond memories of field trips with Tipson, and she recalls Tipson's interest in teaching teens about the risks of alcohol and drug use.

"She was a wonderful teacher," Frenette said. "Now she's a wonderful friend, and I love coming here."

The shop has always been a place where Tipson could engage in her community work: She kept a cooler there for donations to the food shelf and made candles to place in the festival pumpkins.

"Winooski is a very special place," Tipson said. "When I was growing up, everybody knew everybody, and people took care of each other. Things have changed a lot; it's lost some of that [small-town] ambience."

But Tipson has a knack for bringing people together and balancing the needs and interests of newer and longtime Winooski residents, according to Sister Pat McKittrick, an outreach nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center. She has worked with Tipson on several community projects, including serving on the food shelf board.

"Sally's an amazing community member ... [who] was interested in making a difference for everybody," McKittrick said. "She's the kind of person who would roll up her sleeves and go to work."

Tipson's years of working 40 to 50 hours a week at the flower shop will come to an end in 10 days. Now that the shop is closing, Brennan said, it's "just another little piece of Americana that we're losing."

For her part, Tipson is hoping to find a buyer for the business to keep Winooski's sole flower shop alive. This week, she'll stock poinsettias and holiday centerpieces, make bouquets and fill online orders. On Christmas Eve, Tipson will close up shop at noon, one last time, and head home for a family gathering.

"Kyle said, 'Mom, are you going to cry?'" Tipson said. "And I said, 'I have no idea.'"

The original print version of this article was headlined "Petal Power"