On an unseasonably warm recent afternoon, John’s Botany Bay Florist was humming.
Sandwiched between a hair salon spa and the Riverdale Veterinary Group on a busy commercial strip of Riverdale Avenue between West 236th and 237th streets, owner John McKeon aimed for a harvest look with cornhusks tied to the trunk of a tree in front of the shop, along with pots of sunflowers and elm tree branches, the giant leaves swaying in the afternoon breeze.
For McKeon, selling flowers is a way of life. He works in Botany Bay seven days a week, a job he’s maintained for the last 25 years — the past 20 as its owner.
But never before has he experienced the bad part of trick-or-treating when it comes to Halloween. McKeon had put out corn and pumpkins, something he’s always done for the fall holiday. But on one mid-October morning, he arrived at his 3611 Riverdale Ave., shop to find all but two of the pumpkins missing.
It was the first time anyone ransacked the bounty, and McKeon was shocked.
“I have no idea why anybody would take pumpkins,” he said. “It makes no sense. There’s no value.”
McKeon sells the pumpkins for between $5 and $10, depending on the size.
“You want to go get locked up for stealing pumpkins? I’d hate to be in a jail cell, and, you know, ‘What’re you in here for?’ ‘Stealing pumpkins.’”
McKeon called the 50th Precinct’s community affairs department, but received no response. And while his customers could see the pumpkins were missing, McKeon thought best not to tell them he suspected someone had stolen them.
“I didn’t want to blow anybody’s head,” he said. “It’s just going to bring them down.”
Several nights later, McKeon replaced the missing pumpkins. Again they disappeared.
“It ruins it for the kids,” he said. “You see them go by and they start laughing, pointing at it, people take pictures with their children in front of it, on the haystacks.”
Initially, McKeon recalled placing eight pumpkins in front of the store. But now, “there’s just one little pumpkin left. It’s a sad little pumpkin.”
Mysteriously, no one touched the corn.
After the pumpkin incident — and with Veterans Day and other holidays right around the corner — McKeon is hesitant to dress up his storefront.
“I’m jaded now. Do I decorate for Christmas?” he asked. “I was really looking to light up the street with Christmas trees. Do I take a chance? Do I do anything? Or do I just say, ‘For what, if they’re going to destroy it?’”
McKeon notes Riverdale has changed drastically since he moved from Washington Heights more than 40 years ago. Back then pumpkin theft was all but unheard of.
“So many people and new homes, all these new buildings. Before, it was like a small town and you could put stuff out and this wouldn’t happen,” he said. “But now I don’t even know half the people I see in the street.
Granted, the influx of people has been good for business — more customers for McKeon.
“On the other hand,” he said, “I miss my little Riverdale. But I didn’t expect little Riverdale to stay that way — that would be a fairytale. And the place is too beautiful not to share it with other people.”
Still, McKeon said, “Riverdale is losing the pumpkin flavor … I guess we just lost the magic of the pumpkins.”
As to how he’d prevent further plundering, McKeon realizes he can only do so much.
“I can’t control it,” he said. “I can’t stay open 24 hours a day watching for pumpkin purveyors.”
Holiday displays might not be the only thing missing from Riverdale Avenue in the future. McKeon doesn’t think flower shops — his or others — will last forever. It’s part of an ever-changing small business environment that might not necessarily be for the best.
“You’ve seen the bakeries close, the fish market is closed, and all of that was just a little bit of Riverdale that’s not here anymore,” McKeon said. “I can understand that — people don’t eat the way they used to. They don’t have Danishes for breakfast. And the same with flowers. People don’t have flowers … ”
McKeon trails off, then catches himself.
“But how can you not have flowers on the weekend? They just make you feel good.”