Bohemia blooms in Asrai Garden, Elizabeth Cronin’s lush oasis on North Avenue.
This year Elizabeth Cronin has vowed to stock her shop only with things “I want to be around every day.”
Beneath a black-and-white-striped awning, a rainbow of flowers beckons North Avenue passersby from Asrai Garden’s front window, where fresh blossoms are organized by color in rows of gleaming vases. Inside the wit-and-whimsy-filled space, foliage hangs from the ceiling and spills out to the sidewalk, where owner Elizabeth Cronin has just added spring flowers to the outdoor planter on this sunny Wednesday morning.
“I hated gardening when I was young,” says Cronin, her eyes widening as she rests her tattooed arms against Asrai Garden’s counter. “Hated it.” Growing up in Edison Park, she explains, she was often tasked with helping her mom weed their sizable garden. “I always told her, ‘When I get older, I’m going to live in a house with all cement. There’s going to be no flowers to take care of.’”
But these days find Cronin taking care of plenty of flowers at Asrai Garden, where she prepares deliveries of fresh, natural flora for both everyday and special events, like weddings and Obama fundraisers. She opened the boutique in the Coyote Building at Wicker Park’s six corners at the age of 23 (“It was the ’90s, and they were giving out loans to people like crazy,” says Cronin, an environmental science dropout who discovered she enjoyed working with florists). Following a rent increase in the early aughts, she moved Asrai Garden to its current location, in a nook of North and Winchester Avenues. “People will walk by and say, ‘Oh my God, we finally have a florist over here? When did you open?’ I’m like, ‘1999?’” she deadpans. She has a soft spot for this neighborhood, which is where her parents first met. “It’s my home,” says Cronin, a resident of the South Side neighborhood Brighton Park. “I walk out the front door [of Asrai Garden] and I see 10 people I know before I’ve reached the corner.” She considers many customers family. For example: “I have a client who sends me to his house in Mexico for vacation every year, and I have clients who, when they moved to New York for three years, flew me out to do their container gardening on their balcony—like there’s not a florist in New York.” She chuckles while The Cure’s “Lovesong” buzzes in the background.
Cronin describes her boutique as “the everything-I-like-in-one-place store.” An eclectic assortment of antique mirrors lines one of the slate-colored walls, reflecting the shop’s array of products, including Fresh Cut Gardenia candles from Lafco, candy-colored soaps, and $12 wild pheasant feathers displayed in a Mason jar. Forage Haberdashery ties (“Handmade in Philadelphia” reads a sign written in loopy cursive) and hand-painted linen scarves by the Chicago-based brand Wanderlustings are arranged above jewelry cases holding pieces such as a 1945 skull signet ring by local designer Knot & Splice. “I literally have six or seven super-local girls—in Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park—making jewelry right now,” says Cronin, who has found herself sourcing more Chicago-made merchandise of late. “It’s the year of going with my gut—really only carrying the things that I want to see in my home, that I want to be around every day. We bought nothing this year that was ‘I’m buying this ’cause I should.’ We only bought things that we were totally bananas for.”
And if there’s one thing Cronin is wild about, it’s flowers. As someone whose dream is to take her staff of six to Amsterdam’s Aalsmeer Flower Auction (“It’s not some sweet girl with braids frolicking through a tulip field,” she says with a laugh. “It’s actually very much like the stock exchange—people throwing hand signs and yelling and bidding on things”), she’s smitten with this season’s yarrows and dahlias from growers in Michigan, not to mention her most beloved of blooms, hellebores and ranunculi. “I just never get sick of them,” she says. “Even if I know I’m buying four times as many as we’ll sell, I can’t stop buying them. I hoard them.” 1935 W. North Ave., 773-782-0680.