Stories and photos by Bill Richardson
It’s 10 a.m. the day before Valentine’s Day and Bill Collins literally has his hands full.
The owner of Roots Florist in Lawrenceville, Illinois, Collins casually engages in chitter-chatter with customers and fellow workers while at the same time filling orders and doing what he does best — designing floral arrangements.
A 44-year-old Lawrence County native, he grew up south of Lawrenceville and graduated from Red Hill High School in 1989. Collins spent two decades after high school working in the floral business, mostly in big cities in the southern part of the country – something he’ll always treasure.
“It was great,” Collins said of his time away from Lawrence County. “I loved it, really. I had a great time. Mostly, I learned a lot.”
He’d have been happy to continue on that path, and would have no doubt been successful. However, returning to his roots (thus the name of the flower shop) was always in the back of Collins’s mind, if not in the forefront. It was important, he says, to be near his mother and other family members.
After taking a couple of years to search for just the right spot, Collins purchased the building at 616 12th Street, just north of Lawrenceville’s historic town square. It’s a building with a lot of history. In the 1800s, the structure served as the town’s U.S. Post Office, according to Collins, but it had been vacant for decades.
The renovation took a lot of hard work, but when it was done Collins had the perfect place to display what he creates. The room is large, and filled with not just floral arrangements, but other unique and interesting items that are designed to catch one’s eye.
Floral design is more than a vocation for Collins, and even more than an avocation. It’s more like a calling.
“I’ve always had an interest in horticulture and design, primarily design,” he said. “Even when I was young, I enjoyed working with my hands and with God’s creations. I didn’t want to get in any trade where I wouldn’t be working with my hands and with flowers.”
As a teenager, Collins was fortunate to find avenues for his interest to grow. He worked on local farms, including one owned by John Finley, Sr. and gardened with Jack and Idelle Snyder — both of whom are recently deceased — in rural Lawrenceville.
“When I was 14, Jack and Idelle moved back into the county,” Collins said. “They asked me to help with the flowers in their yard and I learned so much. It’s the same with the farmers I worked with. I enjoyed it and they taught me a lot.”
Offering flowers and other plants would be enough, but Collins doesn’t stop there.
To that end, you never know what you’ll find at Roots. Collins has been known to make displays out of things he’s found in ditches. The shelves could contain a metal rooster, candle-holders, wind chimes or even a wooden elephant.
“I don’t want it to look like a flower shop you see all across the board,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot of them over the last 22 years. Roots is a little different. I have a different concept of the way I want my shop to look, other than normal, and I’m happy with it. I like antiques. I want the store to have a different feel, more naturalistic.”
Designing floral arrangements for weddings is also a specialty. Collins got into wedding design during his time away and now finds himself in demand.
Usually, he says, a wedding will take two full days of work.
“I love the wedding work,” he said. “It’s a whole different ballgame now, compared, to say, 15 years ago. It used to be a lot more formal, but now people are a little more relaxed. It allows (wedding designers) to be a little more creative, which I like.”
Collins is frequently called to work weddings in Nashville, Lexington, Kentucky and Atlanta.
He takes pride in the fact that people often recognize his work.
“They’ll see my work in a venue and know I did it,” he said. “That speaks volumes.”
Collins has also joined in the efforts to revitalize Lawrenceville’s downtown area, which are currently under way. Once he became a business owner, he felt it was his obligation.
“Lawrenceville’s had its struggles, like every other small town,” Collins said. “But it’s always kept going, which is wonderful to see.”
Plans are to repair sidewalks, erect new streetlights, give face-lifts to storefronts, and purchase urns for massive floral displays.
“I jumped on that quickly, due to having pride in my hometown,” Collins said of joining the committee. “I want to see downtown the way it used to be, a thriving, welcoming downtown.”
He’s committed to the community, to the point that he recently bought a “farm house” in rural Lawrence County.
It won’t be a traditional farm, but Collins envisions “natural gardening, organic gardening and some flower fields.
“It’s a new adventure, an adventure in the urban lifestyle,” he said.
It also means that downtown Lawrenceville will have a unique flower shop for decades to come.
“The seed’s been planted,” he said. “(Buying a home) was the next step. This is where I’m going to stay.”
Indeed, Bill Collins has returned to his roots.