Due to the damp weather, the outdoor wall of stuffed animals at Rios Flowers has been under a tarp for most of the week. The street in front of the store has been reduced to a sand pit, a perilous habitat of orange and white traffic barriers and sinkholes. But the masking of the flower shop's famous Valentine's Day display under a plastic burka and the bulldozer hell we know as Biscayne Boulevard has not deterred customers. They demand flowers, and flowers they will have.
The day before Valentine's Day, owner Geraldo Rios is in automaton mode. He keeps the store open 24 hours a day from February 11 to 14 and says he has not slept in days. He scurries around the shop, dodging a customer holding a heart-bedecked stuffed monkey, stripping roses of leaves, shoving a few more birds of paradise into an arrangement before it ships out. Out back is a refrigerated truck on risers almost entirely filled with bouquets. At the front door, two women stand before helium canisters inflating an endless number of metallic heart-shaped balloons. Delivery men carry towering arrangements to their vans.
Trailing a slow-footed reporter behind him, Rios pauses for a sip of colada from the construction workers taking a break across the street. He then unlocks a side door and gestures inside. An ascent up a short stairway reveals a surreal sight: teddy bears, thousands of them, wrapped in plastic bags and placed in rows. They stare glassy-eyed, some paired with a bottle of champagne and glasses. There are white bears and brown ones, bears holding hearts inscribed with love notes in Spanish and English, bears the size of schoolchildren lolling on couches. Bears are piled against the neo-Italianate sculptures Rios uses for wedding flowers, bears line the walls. They are stacked into pyramids, they hang from the guard rail. Resting under a canopy of helium balloons, the second floor of Rios Flowers holds a veritable army of bears, awaiting presentation by strapping men to their cooing, adoring wives and girlfriends.
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It was only a few years ago that the annual invasion of peluches was nearly shut down by city code enforcement. It would have been a shame. Flowers, after all, have been scientifically proven to make us happy. And given the aesthetic state of Biscayne Boulevard these days, a block festooned with stuffed animals comes as something of a relief. --Emily Witt