NAUGATUCK — All that remained of Flowers Plus, the business Terry Raimo ran for more than 40 years, was a line of three blue tents in a parking lot on Rubber Avenue. And a few plants, most of which Raimo sold on a breezy Thursday last week.
After his son dropped him off, Raimo trudged to a chair under one of the tents. He had forgotten his cane that day, and had a hard time walking. Once settled in the chair, he lit a cigarette and pulled out an 8-by-10 inch photo that looked to be at least 15 years old. It showed the business in full bloom, right before Halloween one year. Striped tents and racks of pumpkins took up the entire parking lot on the long-ago October evening.
Raimo said the business used to have a cop stationed there on Fridays and Saturdays to direct traffic coming out of the parking lot.
“That’s how busy it was,” he said.
Raimo figured he would sell the remaining plants by the end of the day and close for good.
“This is one of the saddest days of my life,” he said, squinting his blue eyes.
Raimo is a big man with thick silver hair, but he looks fragile. The tanned skin on the back of his hands looks delicate, and there’s a slight quiver in his left hand, which is nearly always gripping a Marlboro Red.
“My health just isn’t really good,” he said. He found out he had cancer a month ago.
Raimo has known many of his customers since they were teenagers, students together at Naugatuck High School. He left the borough after high school, paying his way through the University of New Haven with jobs at meat counters and grocery stores. In 1972, Raimo struck out on his own, selling flowers out of a 1952 Chevy pickup. He thinks he rented space in a parking lot on Rubber Avenue for $50 or $100 a week that year.
“The first customer I had, 45 years ago, I still have her two dollars at home,” he said.
He opened up a produce market in July 1973, renting the storefront at 129 Rubber Ave. He said he always had this property in mind.
“I knew the potential here. It was always 129 Rubber Avenue,” he said.
He expanded into meat a few years later, and in 1984 he purchased the building with help from his parents and a real estate partner. He tried to start up other grocery franchises, one in Ansonia, one in Bridgeport, but they didn’t last more than a few months. Raimo retrenched to Naugatuck.
“I still had my baby,” as he called the Rubber Avenue store.
On the last day at the flower stand, Raimo was quiet. He punctuated long silences with stories about his life and his business, jumping back and forth across decades. He started bagging groceries in his dad’s store when he was 7. He learned to cut meat in his uncle’s Waterbury market, Antonelli’s. When he had his own store, he liked to group flowers by color.
“The colors pop more that way,” he explained, chopping his arms out in front of him like barriers between the colors.
When a customer ambled up, Raimo perked up like a geranium after a good watering. His voice got louder and stronger as he called out a “Hi, how are you?” across the parking lot. He cracked jokes, giving some a hard time for planting flowers so late in the spring. If the customers came in couples, he liked to ask, “Who plants them, you or him?” He made everyone who bought a tomato plant promise to bring him a tomato. As one couple drove away, he sighed audibly and said, “It’s people like them.”
A friend said to Raimo once, “First time a customer, second time a friend.” Raimo took this to heart. He said he has gone to weddings, confirmations, bar mitzvahs, and funerals of the people he calls “customers slash friends,” and has gotten to know three generations in Naugatuck.
“I do love this town, and I love the people,” he said.
Teenagers used to come to Raimo, looking for summer jobs.
“I used to have a waiting list of kids that wanted to work from the high school,” he said.
Some of the former “help,” as he calls his employees, went on to become doctors and lawyers.
“Some of them didn’t turn out good,” he said, chuckling. “I love them all anyway.”
He said he could tell who was going to do well by watching them work as teenagers.
If he had to guess, Raimo said a couple hundred local teens had been in his employ at one point or another, including his own four children, now grown. One son, Eddie Raimo, was with him on the last day, doling out advice on how to make marigolds flower, how to revive sickly tomatoes, selling six-packs of habanero peppers, and loading flats of fragrant basil into cars.
The elder Raimo cut deals to sell off the last of his plants. He gave away a few tomato plants to customers he knew, and to a few he didn’t know. He folded bills in half, and slid them into the breast pocket of his tan palm-printed shirt, halfway unbuttoned in the June heat.
When the customers were gone, and it was just Raimo, his son, and Josie the German shepherd lying at his feet, Raimo got quiet again.
“I’m going to really, really miss seeing all these faces,” he said.
He sighed again and looked around.
“This stand cost me two marriages. I spent so many hours here —14, 16 hours a day,” he said.
On the last day, Raimo didn’t bring a credit card reader to the stand. Cash only. He told one woman who came with just a credit card to just take the marigolds and impatiens she had picked out. Come back to pay him later. She was back in less than 10 minutes with the $6 she owed.
“I did that with so many people, and they always come back. I never got beat, ever,” he said. “There’s got to be trust in business.”
Raimo’s trust and optimism extends to the entire borough. From his outpost on Rubber Avenue, Raimo has seen Naugatuck fall on hard times, he said. He closed the meat and produce businesses and sold the building in November 2014. But thinks the town is about to turn a corner.
“I have a lot of faith in Naugatuck,” he said. “People were good to me.”
Many customers had no idea the stand was about to close for good. One, Lorraine Shea, said she thought she had been buying flowers from Raimo for 30 years, making the trip down from Wolcott. She couldn’t believe that it was the last day for Raimo’s stand.
“So this is the last hurrah for this,” she asked.
“Well, it’s been a long run,” she said.
“Keep that smile,” Raimo said to her. “That’s what keeps the veggies going.”