If there's one thing fruit and flower stand owner Buck Meir never loses track of, it's the calendar. Ask him how business is going and he'll likely point to the calendar first, for this is a fellow who can find an advertising angle for practically every month and holiday of the year.
Take Easter, when Meir and his son Jeff scout farms and nurseries from Pennsylvania to the Eastern Shore to pick up lilies for their roadside stand in Silver Spring. On Mother's Day it's bushels of mums; in autumn it's 14 tons of pumpkins, and at Christmas it's nearly 1,000 pines and firs.
So it seemed entirely fitting that on a sunny Friday the 13th in May, Meir should tell a visitor that he finds reason to feel lucky. "Azaleas," he whispers with a wink, pointing to the month of May on the calendar behind him. "Best time in the world to sell azaleas. And it ain't got nothing to do with superstition."
Buck and Jeff Meir are just two of countless Washington-area roadside stand owners who provide a tiny slice of rural life amid the suburban sprawl while vying for commuter dollars.
In the roadside stand business, it matters not so much what you sell as when and how you sell it. This is the season for plants and flowers, so on major thoroughfares throughout the city and suburbs, the stands have become smorgasbords of color, full of geraniums, azaleas, and impatiens.
Any roadside stand owner will tell you it's not the easiest thing in the world, getting fast-moving motorists to stop and take a look. At his stand at Colesville Road and Lockwood Drive, Meir, 63, explained that appearances are important. That's why, in naming the place Spring Silver Fruits and Vegetables, he inverted the town's name--to get people to think twice upon passing.
That's why he also ordered multicolored signs with letters a foot tall advertising the flowers and fruits he sells.
But that's only half the battle, his son went on. The other half is scuffling to beat the competition to far-flung nurseries and farms in Virginia and Maryland at predawn hours for produce and plants.
"It's first come, first served. In July and August we make up to two trips a day to the Eastern Shore for melons and vegetables," Jeff Meir, 35, says, adding that in spring and summer the 90-mile trip back and forth is usually worth the effort. On summer Saturdays and Sundays, the Meirs say, they can sell as many as 800 dozen ears of sweet white corn.
"A lot depends on who you do business with in the country," Jeff Meir says. "You get along with one farmer and he'll get you in touch with his brother-in-law and so on and so on until you need a map to understand it all."
It's hard work and the hours are not short. "When I work a half-day, I mean just that," Meir went on. "Twelve hours." And often the rewards are not just monetary. "You learn a lot about people in this business, like this one couple who came in last summer every week like clockwork to buy 18 pounds of tomatoes. I thought it was kind of funny, so finally after the fourth or fifth week I asked them what they do with them.
"Turned out," he went on, "they ate 'em whole like apples. Just the two of them. They had a thing for tomatoes."
In another month or so, when harvest time comes to the Eastern Shore, the fruit and vegetable business on Colesville Road will boom again, the Meirs say. Meantime, Jeff Meir will continue to dream of moving the operation to a better location.
"I got my eye on a little lot about two, three traffic lights up the road," he said, his eyes alive with desire. "It's on a wide shoulder, with plenty of room for folks to slow down and park."