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The Little Engine That Could

GreenSpace decides to reopen.

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Evelyn Congiglieri has been working at GreenSpace for five years.

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Desmond Chees waters the plants

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Pond at GreenSpace.

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Owner Cindy Spak talks to customer Judy Taillon.

When word started getting around that GreenSpace wasn't going to open again; the calls and e-mails started coming in.

"I was amazed at all the messages and e-mails that I received," said Cindy Spak, owner of GreenSpace Unlimited. "It's great that a little place like ours could attract so much attention. What a great world we live in."

Most poignant was the story told by one of her customers who drove by in January and saw the "For Lease" sign. When the mother told her daughter, Rebecca, that GreenSpace was closing, she said, "Oh, Cindy wouldn't just leave us." And sure enough, when they stopped by recently, Rebecca said, "See Mom, I told you she wouldn't leave us."

The "For Lease" sign went up in January when Spak cancelled her lease. 2008 had been a rough year and Spak didn't think that she could survive. However, by the second week of March, she had changed her mind.

"I decided that I just couldn't do it," she said. "The reality was that this space might end up being a place for repossessed cars. There is so much positive energy and beauty here — I just couldn't give it up."

Spak talked to her handful of employees and they all said, "Let's just try to make it work."

So far, everything is going well. Last year, she had a hard time getting people to work, plus it rained most of April and then turned very hot in May.

THIS YEAR, she has had good weather and good employees. Plus it seems like ever since word got out that she was going to close, she has had more customers than ever.

"My customers started telling all of their friends that they needed to shop here," said Spak. "One of the garden clubs wanted to do a fundraiser for me and another wanted to put signs in their yards, telling people to shop here."

One of her devoted customers, Tara Gross, said, "We have had the great privilege of knowing Cindy Spak for over 15 years now. She gave our daughter, Olivia, her first kitten named appropriately, 'Flower.' There are not enough adjectives to describe Cindy ... she's the kindest, most generous, caring human being we have ever known. What she has given to our community — her time, her advice, her plants, her energy and her kittens are immeasurable — all with so much love from a very big heart ... I have told friends for years that Cindy really is, a rare human angel ..."

Lilly Pierce is another regular customer, and said, "Miss Cindy is the ultimate neighborhood small business lady — and business is not the only thing on her mind ... sometimes I think GreenSpace should be called Green - people - and - animal - Space.

"Besides being a longtime fixture in the neighborhood, Miss Cindy takes in people who like my mother [it's her seventh season] need/want a volunteer job: young folks as well as seniors like my mother whose English and physical capabilities are limited but she finds a place in her garden and her heart for them and she makes them feel needed and valuable in their contributions.

"Her business is personalized in many ways: customer service but also birthday parties and BBQ's for her employees ... little gifts and support when they need it.

"A seasonal donation of plants goes to UCM which my mother, Elisabeth, receives from GreenSpace and then uses to beautify the planters in front of UCM ... and there are yearly Christmas gifts she donates to UCM's children which I only know of because I've been privileged to deliver them.

"The downturn of the economy tried and proved her strength and gave us all a chance to rally around her and show support — and [against all odds] GreenSpace reopened, a great asset to the neighborhood."

NOT ONLY DOES Spak have her regular employees that have been with her for years, but one of her customers, Grev Hart, said that he was between missions and asked what he could do to help.

"This is a guy who has built ponds in Cambodia and latrines in Zimbabwe," she said. "He's an amazing guy — I asked him to tackle [the rebuilding of] the pond and he did a great job. He took chaos and made order."

The pond will be used once again to house aquatic plants; GreenSpace also has a large selection of pond supplies. They sell a lot of organic products — pesticides with citrus oil and other natural products.

This is in addition to their large array of perennials, annuals and herbs.

"We have a lot of natives, especially shade plants," said Spak. "We also have 10 types of basil — probably one of the best selections of herbs in the area."

Spak has decided to cut down on the number of shrubs and trees that she carries; instead she will plant "The Obama Garden." They will grow tomatoes, peppers, melons and strawberries in raised beds — and donate the produce to United Community Ministries (UCM).

On Thursday, May 21, she is hosting a UCM Night (see box for details) where she will donate 20 percent of the proceeds.

She worries about everybody and was very concerned that one of her long-time employees, David Schwentker, wouldn't be able to find another job if she didn't reopen. Schwentker, who gives that extra touch by answering questions and helping to load cars, is glad to be working.

"I'm thrilled to be back and dedicated to Cindy, who's an outstanding boss," he said. "We have a very nice clientele — die-hard gardeners who appreciate quality plants."

Spak's kindness doesn't just apply to humans. For years, GreenSpace has been known as a safe haven for displaced kittens. Invariably there will be a cage or two of kittens who can barely open their eyes and have to be bottle fed. Her three grown cats had free range of the property but they are all misfits.

"I knew that I wouldn't be able to find a place for them. I fill a niche between shelters and foster homes," said Spak, who is good with the tiny ones that invariably are brought to her by one of her customers. "I'm glad that the kitties still have a nice home."