Interview with Neil Bassin
Oral histories are used to understand historical events, actors, and movements from the point of view of real people’s personal experiences.
Arlington has a lengthy history of legacy floral shops, and among those was Buckingham Florist, a mainstay of the Buckingham neighborhood for almost 80 years.
Buckingham Florist was founded by Myer and Jean Bassin in Arlington in 1942, and the couple later opened a second location in Coral Hills, Maryland. The business did floral arrangements for a variety of events and venues, with the nearby Arlington National Cemetery among their primary sites of business.
At one point, Buckingham Florist was the primary supplier of flowers for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The shop’s federal connections didn’t stop there, however: one of the shop’s floral designers, Elmer “Rusty” Young, went on to serve as a florist in the White House in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Young was appointed the first White House Chief Floral Designer by Jacqueline Kennedy, and continued in that position throughout the rest of his career.
Buckingham Florist, right, in 1996.
The shop moved to its long-term location at 301 North Glebe Road in the bustling Buckingham Shopping Center in the mid-1950s, having previously been located on the south side of Glebe. Myer and Jean Bassin’s son Neil Bassin ran Buckingham Florist throughout the latter half of the 20th century. He sold the shop in the mid-2000s, and the Buckingham storefront closed permanently in 2017.
In this oral history interview, Neil Bassin (1932-2019) discusses the legacy of the business and how the shop supplied its flowers. The interview in full goes on to discuss other topics, such as changes in the floral industry and the business environment of Buckingham throughout the 20th century.
Narrator: Neil Bassin
Interviewer: Virginia Smith
Date: May 14, 2012
Photos of the Bassin family from the February 8, 1965, issue of the Northern Virginia Sun. Image courtesy of Virginia Chronicle.
Neil Bassin: In most aspects of the florist business, we were very successful because of the location we were in. People knew us. And that’s, I would say, the major factor in why our business was so successful, until the people met me or my mother, or you know. And just personal business, where the people knew us. I mean, we had people when they were born. We had them when they were married, and we had them when they died because the business is over sixty years.
Virginia Smith: That’s a nice legacy, isn’t it? Sixty years of business.
NB: Yeah, it’s a long time.
VS: Tell me who your suppliers were of flowers.
NB: Well, lots. Mostly, downtown florists, wholesalers. And when I first got in, it was downtown wholesalers. They were all—
VS: Is that the name of it? Downtown—?
VS: Oh, multiple—?
NB: They were mostly around one block downtown.
VS: Where was that block?
NB: It was between Fourteenth and Thirteenth on the street before K Street. K Street was a park in those days.
NB: Like a little park. And then down Fourteenth Street, on the right was Schaffer’s Retail Florist.
VS: Okay, but Shaffer was a wholesaler also—
NB: Then, Shaffer was a wholesaler. McCallum Sauber was a wholesaler, and they were really instrumental in helping us get in business because my uncle sort of knew the owners. And they did help us. My uncle was very artistic, and he was a big help in getting us into the business. But, there were Paul’s Wholesale Florist and Goody Brothers.
VS: Oh, I know that name.
NB: And around the corner was District Wholesale, and Flowers Incorporated, which was also a wholesale florist. And so they were all in one area until they sold that block and razed that block, where they all moved out and spread out.
Advertisement for Buckingham Florist in the Washington, D.C., Yellow Pages in 1960. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Elmer “Rusty” Young, Chief Floral Designer at the White House, prepares an arrangement in the Floral Room, August 28, 1963. Young was previously a floral designer at Buckingham Florist. Image courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library of Museum.
The goal of the Arlington Voices project is to showcase the Center for Local History’s oral history collection in a publicly accessible and shareable way.
The Arlington Public Library began collecting oral histories of long-time residents in the 1970s, and since then the scope of the collection has expanded to capture the diverse voices of Arlington’s community. In 2016, staff members and volunteers recorded many additional hours of interviews, building the collection to 575 catalogued oral histories.
To browse our list of narrators indexed by interview subject, check out our community archive. To read a full transcript of an interview, visit the Center for Local History located at Central Library.