When I’m downtown, I often walk past a stand full of vibrantly colored flowers.
Most of the time, I’m headed to interview a business owner or attend a press conference in city hall. I’ve never had a reason to buy flowers, although glimpsing the rainbow of hues is always a bright spot of my day.
In October, I received my first lei. A man with a friendly smile waved me over as he stood propped against a minivan opposite his table full of flowers. He turned to reach inside the car, pulled out a necklace strung with bright orange marigolds and placed it over my head.
I’ve had my share of interesting encounters in Harrisburg, but this was a new one.
I thanked him and continued on my way, walking the streets like I was Hawaiian royalty. A few quizzical looks were shot my way, but what a fun story I had to tell.
And then it happened again a couple months later—another lei.
Rain or Shine
In the coldest months, Hari Chakra pulls up to his spot on N. 3rd Street, between Locust and Cranberry streets, and places a single flower on top of his van. He was taught this trick for days like this—really cold ones. After awhile, he will check on the flower, seeing if it has frozen. He handed me today’s test flower, prompting me to feel the petals. If it felt stiff, he would have to keep the bulk of his flowers in the van for the day.
“We’ve made a declaration—we will always be here, no matter what,” Chakra said. “Rain, shine, snow or sleet.”
Five days a week, Chakra drives about an hour from his home in Port Royal to pick up flowers from a wholesaler to bring to the city. He sets up shop in his usual location and lays out some of the eye-catching clusters.
He’s been doing this since 2003, shortly after he moved to the United States from Ghana. At first, he was taken under the wing of Mike Blum, who started this flower business. The pair became partners, but also good friends. Blum even lived with Chakra and his family for about six years.
“We became very close,” Blum said. “We were a team.”
Unfortunately, Blum had two heart attacks over the course of a few years, limiting his ability to work. He then decided to move to Boston to take care of his elderly mother. Chakra was sad to lose his partner, but he had been trained by the best, he said. The business became his.
“It was hard for me to give that up,” Blum said. “But it got to the point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. I knew he could take care of it.”
Although Blum remained in Boston, even after his mother passed, he still has been known to re-appear in Harrisburg to help with sales on the busiest holidays of the year. If you stop by the stand on Valentine’s Day this month, you will see him there making bouquets and catching up with old friends.
Within the span of the hour or so that I stood speaking with Chakra, a handful of people came up to purchase a bouquet or waved as they walked past.
“In Harrisburg, everybody knows us,” he said.
On normal days like this, there’s a steady flow of customers. Many are regulars that come a few times a week, while others stop by for special occasions. No matter the budget, Chakra can create an arrangement for his customers.
“When people want to make up with their wives and fiancés, we are here for them,” he said, with a chuckle and a sly grin.
However, if you have walked down 3rd Street on Valentine’s or Mother’s Day, you’ve seen the line. The typical steady flow turns into a multi-block-long pileup of eager flower buyers.
Chakra told me the story of one Valentine’s Day that was particularly challenging.
“It was so cold,” he said. “We had three heaters in the truck and still the flowers were freezing.”
He had to cover the back of the large U-Haul truck with cardboard, attempting to protect the flowers from the wind. People were shouting their requests from their cars, only running out to quickly swap their cash for a bouquet.
“As long as we are determined to work hard, you will get it,” he said. “We will never disappoint.”
Brightens My Day
Midtown resident Heidi Richel-Haines was in her senior year at Penn State University when her boyfriend walked into her room with two huge armfuls of flowers. Her roommates gawked at the sight, wondering how their friend had gotten so lucky.
“We both laughed because we knew where he got them from,” Richel-Haines said. “Your money goes far there.”
The wooing of Richel-Haines with flowers became a regular treat. She received so many that she would end up giving some to her roommates—sharing the wealth.
These days, about 18 years later, Richel-Haines works in the state Capitol building, near the flower stand. Every time she walks by, memories of her days in college flood her mind. Every so often, she stops by.
“I decided to treat myself on paydays,” she said. “Being a single person, I don’t have all the money in the world, but your money goes far there. It really just brightens my day.”
This, I realized, is why Chakra gives out leis to lucky passersby and works with any budget to create a beautiful bouquet—he just wants to make people happy.
“You can have a lot of money, but, if you can’t make people happy, then what is the point?” he said. “This is a job that you help people out and make them feel happy.”
On his off days, Chakra loves spending time with his family. He plays soccer with his youngest daughter and practices running track with her. All of his work is for his wife and five daughters, he said.
But it’s not only his family he seeks to benefit through his business; his mission is citywide.
“We have all the power to make the world a good place to be,” Chakra said. “It begins with ourselves.”
Mike and Hari’s Flowers is located on N. 3rd Street between Locust and Cranberry streets. For more information, visit their Facebook page.