—Two longtime friends overcome the odds to introduce deVINE Plantery, a boutique plant shop in Maplewood, NJ.
Inside deVINE Plantery, childhood friends and business partners Kelly Brown and Maya Haynie prepare to open for the day. It’s 10:00 a.m. and Beyoncé’s “Find Your Way Back” plays overhead as they tend to their newest arrival, the variegated peace lily. It’s with this sort of energy and devotion that this 2020-born brick-and-mortar store in Maplewood, NJ has survived. But for Brown and Haynie, they’re simply doing what they love.
In 2018, the duo wouldn’t have imagined returning to their hometown of Maplewood as owners of deVINE Plantery. The two were college students then, living in Philadelphia, where they were introduced to the active plant industry. The city alone is home to 400 community gardens.
“At first, window shopping for plants was a way for me to de-stress after a long day,” Haynie told me. “I would go to a plant shop after work and peruse.” It wasn’t long before Brown started coming along, and the two began investing their time and money. It felt good to take care of something, Haynie said, explaining the purview of the pitch for deVINE in late March 2020, notably at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was a spontaneous decision,” Brown indicated. “My sister and I were going for a quarantine walk back in late March  and I came across an empty building that had such great windows. I thought, ‘this could be a super nice plant shop.’” Brown decided to take a chance and ask her friends what they thought. Haynie, of course, jumped at the opportunity.
The two sustained enough income (and grit) throughout the pandemic from their full-time jobs and set money aside to successfully launch deVINE Plantery in late July 2020. Cash-loading was a leap of faith for this project, but the two friends insisted on fulfilling their goal, particularly in a community that knows them best. They set out to help others reach the euphoric plant-tending experience they’ve found solace in, especially during a time of such crisis. In turn, they have gained tremendous support from their hometown.
When coronavirus cases were at their peak in New Jersey, it created a barrier between the two women and their customers, effectively disjointing the intimate service their business was intended to thrive on. Haynie and Brown considered the obstacles ahead of them when opening, but were able to persevere nonetheless as they enforced precautions. “We have so many amazing ideas for events because plant-shopping is an intimate and personal experience, but it’s not feasible. We want our customers to be safe,” both women emphasized, after explaining the shop’s contactless delivery, proper sanitation methods and overall compliance with recommended safety guidelines.
“We were very aware of the restrictions we had when we started,” Haynie clarified. “We created our business around the pandemic versus having to adapt retroactively.” Although deVINE Plantery currently operates out of Maplewood Mercantile, the women hope to one day open a storefront of their own and look forward to eventually hosting more in-person events and pop-up shops. Nevertheless, they find that they are still able to offer personalized customer service and teach proper plant-care under the current circumstances.
“We’re from Maplewood, so we have customers who we grew up with. We’ve had kids come in and ask, ‘Did you go to Clinton School? I go to Clinton School.’ It’s the cutest thing,” Haynie said. “It feels as though people in town are proud of us. We’ve received a lot of support from the Maplewood and South Orange communities.”
Both women stress that this location has also allowed them to introduce Essex County to the growing plant community, which has long been oversaturated in neighboring cities such as Philadelphia and New York. The area is otherwise devoid of plant shops and plant-accessibility aside from larger corporations such as Ikea or Home Depot. “There really aren’t any small shops around here where you can buy plants that are engaging and fun,” Haynie continued. “Maplewood is perfect.”
Apart from gaining the attention of members of their community, their store has also extended its demographic to regular homeowners or those refurbishing their living spaces. “Our space in Maplewood Mercantile helped us grow because Amy, the property owner, has a lot of clients and she sells furniture so it kind of goes hand-in-hand [with the plant shop]. A lot of our clients are coming in and furnishing their homes or updating their spaces and they say ‘you know, that really big plant would look nice in the corner of my renovations project,’” Haynie noted.
Brown indicates that 90 percent of their customers are “new pandemic-plant-parents,” whereas the remaining 10 percent are seasoned owners who tend to their personal gardens. This detail has been quintessential to the business, emphasizing the importance of customers leaving the store with knowledge of how to treat the plant. Brown explains that the process is more meticulous than it is arbitrary:
“When we speak to customers, we like to gauge the level of care they’re willing to provide. We want to get a feel for where they’re at right now; if their environment is a suitable space for [the plant] and what their lighting situation is like as well,” she said. “The main plant we always recommend as a safe option is the snake plant. It’s the most neutral plant.”
The gardening community has seen an incline in the sale of seeds, flowers and potted plants since 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. This has been a trend amongst younger generations, as concluded by a 2017 National Garden Survey. Since the industry has gained more traction, houseplants are even considered a new mode for relieving anxiety. Taking care of plants allows owners to build a healthy routine, which can mitigate the possibility of falling into destructive patterns and coping mechanisms. The service provided at deVINE Plantery is therefore underpinned by an effort to contribute to the broader conversation of mental health.
“Mental health has been an underscored theme of the business. We want you to feel good about the decision that you’re making here and be intentional with your purchase. You make yourself feel good by having something that you’re able to keep alive and watch nurture and grow,” Brown explained. “We’re all going through a lot. We want to give people the tools to make an empowered decision that they feel good about and have that trickle down into their routine.”
Although plant-caring may be a way to escape common stressors, Brown expressed concern for the mainstream route it’s shifted toward. She explained that its consequences are debilitating for the owner and, on a larger scale, the growers. “The more people that are interested in plants, the more plants that they need,” she said, explaining the possibility of a plant shortage. “There are a lot more plant shops opening as well, which means we need more growers.”
As Brown and Haynie continue to grow, their future goals will depend on the communication they’re able to share with their customers. They hope to expand shipping nationwide, introduce gifting to their sales and partner with other companies for more ambitious collaborations. The pandemic may have limited certain branding opportunities, but they aspire to broaden the scope of engagement with their consumers and restore the sense of community. Especially at a time when it has been otherwise lost and most necessary.
As announced in an April 27 Instagram post, deVINE will be getting its own brick-and-mortar retail location! The shop will be located at 28 South Fullerton Avenue in Montclair, NJ. You can donate to their crowdfunding campaign here.
Main image by Peter Bonacci