More than Perfect

Mary Fris

More than Perfect

  • Words Jacqueline Raposo
  • Photographs Larissa Fatseas

More Than Perfect

As a child, Mary Fris could mimic the whistles of certain birds before she could identify them by name. Growing up in rural New Jersey, her tree-farming father would boost her up on his shoulders for long hikes through the woods, pointing out the tactile and sensual parts of nature that excited him so. When she was twelve, her family moved to Switzerland. There, they hiked through the Alps, and she stood on top of rocks so high that clouds would pass both over and through her, wrapping her in taste and texture.

All you could hear were cowbells tinkling in the distance,” she reminisces. “It was such a beautiful place, and it inspired me to want that feeling forever. It became a part of who I am.”

Decades later, Mary has captured that feeling at Flora Garden and Home in Beacon, New York.

The shop stands on Main Street, where Willow Street comes to an end. The filtered light of the “right” side of the street speckles down through windows onto the variety of the plants she sells inside. There, worn burnt wood floors welcome tiny children, puppy paws, and grownup patrons alike. White-painted brick walls lead to a backdrop of glass, with doors that open to a pebbled outdoor space.

More than Perfect
More than Perfect

Flora Garden and Home opened in 2015. But while the empty glass, wood, and brick space was “more than perfect” for the plant shop Mary envisioned, the vision itself was years in the making.

When her family returned home from Switzerland to Chappaqua, New York, she recognized a drive for a corporate future of financial gain in her fellow high school coeds that she “wasn’t interested in at all.” Mary preferred art, and nature. Worried for her future, her parents steered her towards a greenhouse management program, which she completed and then followed with a college degree in ornamental horticulture. “I fell in love with growing plants,” she says.

But she wasn’t in love with making two dollars an hour in her job after college. So she got a second degree in product packaging from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan, and worked in that field while restoring antiques on the side. After admiring a colleague’s side job of making picture frames out of hand-marbled paper made in upstate New York, she started spending weekends with the artist at her Woodstock farm, learning the technique.

“The mind-hand connection inspired me. I was always drawn to people who worked with their hands. It didn’t matter what they did; as long as it was creative and interesting, I would fall into or be a part of it,” she says.

More than Perfect

When computers started to replace package design firms, Mary returned to school, this time for cooking. She’d catered during her FIT days, and found not only that the money more than paid the rent, but that she loved working with food. Vowing not to “change horses midstream” again, she worked as a private chef and the pastry chef for a catering company for many years while restoring antiques on the side. “I was constantly doing something or other,” she jokes. “And then I got pregnant.”

It was 2001, just before 9/11, she and her husband looked to sell their renovated Upper West Side apartment and make an upstate move. A cousin mentioned the evolving town of Beacon, two hours north up the Hudson River and, charmed, they bought a house. She spent her first year as the pastry chef of O2, a celebrated restaurant she believes the town wasn’t quite ready for. When it closed, she made scores of cookies, fruit crisps, and soup, and sold them at the weekly Beacon Farmer’s Market. “It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it,” she says. “The best part was meeting the community and the people as they got off the train, right on the waterfront. It was lovely.”

Eventually, burnt out by the massive amount of work (for too little profit), she once again looked to make a change.

 

 

More than Perfect

She debated going back to school to become a paralegal, but a year of being a receptionist at a law firm shook her out of that reality. Then she took an assistant job at a small Beacon flower shop primarily dedicated to wedding arrangements to refresh her skills and see if she could be happy working with flowers again. While respecting her boss’ work, she started to outline the kind of shop she might want to call her own: one lacking commercial carpeting, bows on bouquets, silk flowers, and the “cheesy potted plants you see at ShopRite.”

When that “perfect space” opened on Main Street, she leapt for it. “We signed the lease and I had ten thousand dollars to play with. That was it.”

She went to Home Depot, bought a bunch of lumber, and “we basically started building tables that look like potting shed tables.” When a neighbor threw out her house’s cedar siding, Mary gathered as many boards as she could and scraped them of their old paint. One set wrapped the customer stand, and with the other she made a fountain; step inside now, and water pours from an old reclaimed faucet gently into a pail, the only “music” she plays. She stained contemporary shelving to “take the newness off of it” and rewired old industrial lamps found in random antique and junk shops so successfully that soon she’ll rewire more and sell them, too.

“The whole feeling of the shop is very much like an old hardware store,” she summarizes. “It’s got a very old feeling.”

And then there are the plants.

Colorful perennials, cactus, and lemon trees go into pots seeded with moss so that when you water them, the moss starts to grow and they look “a hundred years old.” Small, square wooden planters sourced from a young woman in Brooklyn are perfect for tiny succulents. She favors clean shapes and simple colors. Beacon flower farmer Diana Cowdery supplies her cut flowers through the local growing season, which go into (bow-less) bouquets or simple vases. “I notice more and more young people coming in and asking where the flowers are grown,” Mary shares. “I’m glad for that, that they’re concerned for the environment.” During the winter months, she works with sellers to make sure they’re as locally and sustainably grown as possible, too.

“Most people come in and say, ‘Oh, I’d like to sit here all day, it feels so great,’” she shares. “I think we’re deprived of sensual things these days. We don’t get outdoors as much as we used to. I would like to reawaken that in people. I would like to see more people go take a walk in the woods, and just enjoy nature.”

 

 

More than Perfect

On her days off, Mary walks through the woods, down to the Hudson River, and collects driftwood. “I like listening to the water lapping on the shore as I’m collecting. I love the scenery. I just love being out there,” she shares. She collects what’s drifted to shore or wades into the water to cut off tree roots that have broken through the surface. Back in the shop, she uses the wood as planters, rooting Staghorn Ferns and wrapping them with moss. “They’re absolutely stunning. They’re like living sculptures. I hang them on the wall and they’re gone in a week,” she exclaims. “It’s like sharing an expression of who I am with my customers.

 

 

 

 

 

More than Perfect

Aside from potted plants and driftwood sculptures, she sells items that have particular value to her. A Beacon cabinetmaker uses scrap wood in self-watering vertical wall planters; whenever he walks by and sees one has been sold, he makes her another. She buys old gardening tools from tag sales, sands and repaints them, and then sells them as “recycled” tools, claiming they’re of better quality than the more expensive mass-manufactured products sold today. There are mugs, trivets, and beeswax candles; no other scents, just the soothing warmth of natural beeswax.

Mary has lived in Beacon long enough now to have seen it change into a neighborhood ripe for her kind of wares. The “hipsters” have come in, she says, and she loves them: “Young people are inspiring to me because they are so into nature and the environment and social causes. I love it. It’s brought new life and blood and energy into town.” Her preference for clean, simple shapes that reflect the natural world fits their aesthetic, too. And she gets to satisfy both her mind-hand connection and her childhood world through the creations she sells and the discussions they share: “They’re teaching their kids about nature; it’s like a rehash of the seventies,” she says of her clientele.

More than Perfect
More than Perfect

After rehashing her meandering path to Flora Garden and Home, Mary honestly expresses no regret in having pursued various careers on the road to her “first real business”. Moments of failure – her brief foray into the paralegal world, or various side jobs of a nine-to-five nature – only gave her more experience for what followed. And she credits the personal and financial success of her store now to this life of following her own passions:

“Just follow your passion and the money will come,” she promises. “If you find something you have an aptitude for or a natural love for, explore it every way possible. You’ll find a way to make a living from it. You will. It might take some time, but you’ll get there.”

Mary enjoys her store. “The time just flies by,” she says. Patrons come in and chat for hours, she makes house calls to advise new gardeners, and she restores her antiques. “I decided to jump and take it,” she concludes. “If you’re really passionate, jump. See what happens. You don’t want to get to the end of your life and… well… at the end of mine, I will have no regrets.”

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