The sun has inched over the horizon, traffic on the nearby Southeast Expressway has yet to congeal into its chronic congestion, and, already, James McAdams — who left the outskirts of Montreal at midnight — is hard at work on Albany Street.
He’s got a truckload of begonias and, after a 300-mile drive, he’s slipped into the loading dock behind the Boston Flower Exchange, where business is in high gear and florists from throughout New England are clutching shopping lists, looking for roses and lilies and the one-stop-shopping bargains they’ve found here for 44 years.
“These brides are differentiating between pale pink and soft blush,’’ Clouthier tells me just after the Flower Exchange doors opened at 5 on Wednesday morning. “They drive me crazy.’’
But persnickety brides are the least of Clouthier’s worries. Like hundreds of other retailers who start their day at the low-slung, 5.6-acre exchange, he’s worried that the central nervous system of New England’s floral industry is about to wilt away and die.
“It’s a sin to see this leave the city of Boston,’’ Coleen O’Donnell, who has operated her Dorchester flower shop for 37 years, said as she examined roses shipped in from Ecuador. “I mean look at the quality. Come on. It’s outstanding. You’re not going to see that in a grocery store.’’
In case you hadn’t heard, Boston is in the middle of perhaps its biggest building boom ever. Construction cranes have blossomed on the city’s skyline. And multiple developers are now circling on Albany Street. A wide majority of the exchange’s shareholders have voted to sellthe place, the latest home for a venerable institution that dates to 1909.
And even some of them, acknowledging a lucrative development market too tempting to ignore, don’t seem thrilled about abandoning the South End exchange where 14 or so flower wholesalers rent floor space for up to $300,000 a year on primo real estate.
“The stockholders are two or three generations away from the original people who started the market, and they have no love or interest,’’ Denis V. Minihane, a 79-year-old board member who for years ran a flower and garden shop in Brighton. “We’re becoming a city of skyscrapers and we have no place for the people who bring flavor and color to city life. What bothers me is we’re dealing with people’s lives.’’
That would include people like Gerry Cupp, owner of Cupp & Cupp Corp., who feeds the exchange from his greenhouses in Lexington, his farm in Concord, and a second-to-none work ethic that’s impossible to miss.
Cupp and two other wholesalers, including Reuven Levi, the co-owner of Berkeley Florist Supply, want to buy the exchange, an 11th-hour effort that they acknowledge may be too little, too late. They met with some bankers early this week.
“It’s possible,’’ said Cupp, 57, and the father of eight. “We’ve got to put our necks out. We’re running out of time here pretty quick. I’d say it’s maybe 10 percent, 15 percent. It’s not looking good.’’
Levi, a tad more optimistic, said he knows the board of directors has received, among others, a $35 million offer, which the small collaborative of wholesalers perhaps could match to save the exchange. “If it’s going to be a bidding war, where somebody comes up with $40 million or $50 million, then we’re out,’’ Levi said.
Cupp has been here long enough to remember when the Flower Exchange was on the edge of the city, not in the bull’s-eye of a development bonanza.
“When we first came here in 1971, this was pretty much the end of town,’’ said Cupp, his boots stained, jeans dirty, and suspenders askew. “There used to be prostitutes walking around in high heels. Now, it’s fancy women.’’
In the corner of his shop there’s an old map of Boston circa 1881, showing that a coal and wood yard once occupied the site. Now, sadly, it’s Cupp and colleagues who teeter toward history.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@ globe.com.