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Sales low but scariness resolute at the pumpkin patch

on October 23, 2009

On a recent Tuesday after lunchtime, the concrete slab at the back of J. Miller Flowers, which normally acts as a driveway and parking area, was caked in damp golden straw, covered with stacks of hay, and loaded with pumpkins of all varieties. Some were dotted with bubbling warts, others had long prickly stems, and still others were smooth and perfectly round, the ideal condition for a first-time carver. The brisk fall air felt cool, and the early afternoon sun shone brightly on the patch and made the straw-covered ground glisten as if it were dawn instead of the middle of the day. Scarecrows stuffed with corn husks and dried grass were strung along the white marquees that protected some of the pumpkins from the rainy conditions earlier in the week. Nine massive cardboard boxes that could easily fit several people sat on wooden crates and were filled to the brim with squash.

A group of four young mothers wandered into the patch with their newborn babies in tow and found space to sit on a haystack. But they weren’t there to buy; their plan was to document their little ones’ first Halloween season. They took turns carefully wedging their babies between the pumpkins and snapped away, helping each other by making wide-eyed faces in hopes of yielding an animated expression from each baby.

Pumpkins of all sizes and variety at the patch

Pumpkins of all sizes and variety at the patch

Not many other people were buying pumpkins either that day, partly because, these days, it’s hard to find this pumpkin patch.

Although the small pumpkin patch hidden in the back of the flower shop at the intersection of Pleasant Valley Road and Piedmont Avenue had every available space crammed with Halloween décor, if it wasn’t for the huge white plastic banner with “Pumpkin Patch” in bold orange lettering on the front of the building you would never know it was there.

This wasn’t always the case for pumpkin patch manager Jon Goldstein, who was sporting tousled brown hair and a bright orange T-shirt featuring a smiling black jack-o-lantern. The seasonal pumpkin seller used to set up shop on a vacant lot kitty-corner to its current location. But in 2005 the lot was turned into a three-story condominium with shops and a restaurant on the bottom floor. The following year Goldstein had to move across the street.

“My sales dropped by half (in 2006),” Goldstein said, as if he were still surprised by his revenue loss. But Goldstein said he felt fortunate to find a place so close to the original location, and so quickly. “The rent here is a lot cheaper than the lot was across the street, so it’s no so bad,” he said. Plus, he says, while business wasn’t so brisk on this weekday afternoon, it’s usually better on weekends.

Throughout the afternoon Goldstein walked in and out of the flower shop, which had also been turned into a hub for Halloween kitsch. He sells things like plastic bowls of fake pasta filled with tongues and eyeballs and old-timey photos of poised innocent-looking children, which, when tilted, reveal images of scarier children with bulging eyes and wicked smiles.

Wherever Goldstein went, his waddling 10-year-old dachshund, Oopy, followed closely behind. The wiener dog was dressed in an orange and black jester collar dotted with confetti pumpkins.


Outside, a white board labeled “Patch Rules” reminded pumpkin-buyers of how to conduct themselves in the presence of gourds. The rules, some of which were translated into Spanish: No climbing on pumpkins. No picking up pumpkins by the stem. Have fun.

“Mommy! Look at this!” a 4-year-old blonde girl with eyes like saucers said as she examined a pumpkin at the front of the patch. Her younger sister excitedly took note of another pumpkin close by. “That’s not a pumpkin,” the 2-year old said, looking at a lone plastic pumpkin sitting in the midst of a pile of real ones.

Stepping away from the plastic impostor, the girl looked up and suddenly an expression of concern fell over her face. “Mommy! Look at the big yellow pumpkin,” she said pointing to a tree in the distance. Her mom, puzzled, took a few steps forward to make out what her daughter was pointing at.

“That’s a very big yellow pumpkin,” the little girl repeated, in a matter of fact tone.

“Oh honey, I think that’s a lemon tree, and that’s a very big lemon,” the girl’s mother said.

The little girl’s attention was quickly diverted when her big sister noticed the haunted house at the back of the patch.  “Let’s go into the haunted house!” the older girl said.

“We already said we wouldn’t go in there because it’s too scary,” her mom replied.

“I can’t go in there,” the little girl agreed. “When I grow up I can go in there. It’s too scary now.”

That was probably the right decision. The small haunted house, built into an overflow storage area and located behind a bunch of cardboard boxes, was filled with things like a crib containing the skeletal remains of a bride and groom, and six scary-looking baby dolls gnawing at a three-tiered wedding cake that sat at the wedding couple’s feet. Wart-nosed witches, red-eyed dogs with bloody mouths, and elaborate black spider webs floated around anyone who made their way in. The smell of dust and dampness was ever-present through the twists and turns of the house.

The setup may have fooled a 4-year-old, but the leftover “We’re Closed” sign hanging behind the crib and the cubicle partitions that guided the way through the house were a dead give away that it was all a sham.

By early evening, the air had gotten even cooler as the sun started to set behind the neighboring buildings. Shadows fell over the pumpkin piles and the damp hay-strewn lot, and even the haunted house at the back of the patch began to take on a creepier air than it had in the mid-day sun.

Occasionally the pitter-patter of a child’s footsteps would sound and an excited face would make a fleeting appearance before being called back into the shop, but mostly, the pumpkin patch remained empty on the cool fall day.

The mother and her two little girls perused the patch for while, and then left sans pumpkins. Goldstein was idling at the front of the flower shop. “It’s been a slow afternoon,” he said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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