Letters from Michelle Obama and John McCain adorn what at first glance appears to be just another Berkeley flower shop on Durant Avenue.
Both Obama and McCain commend the 65-year-old store owner Zafar Honarmand for his continued support of democracy in Iran and abroad. McCain even said he hopes one day they “will have dinner together in Tehran.”
On the store’s front, “Freedom Flowers” is engraved in big, bold cursive. The name combines Honarmand’s interest in liberal politics with his zest for life.
He’s been selling flowers from this Southside spot since 1985, supplying bouquets and single roses to countless Berkeley residents. The shop sits on Sather Lane, nestled between Yogurt Park and T-Toust. He has run his business over the years with one foot in Iranian news and the other in Berkeley’s liberal community. Flowers and freedom, for him, go hand in hand.
Glancing at the letters on his storefront, he smiles and shares aphoristically his two guiding principles, “You have to be happy, and you have to support democracy.”
Though the flower shop has been a Berkeley mainstay since Honarmand opened it nearly 30 years ago, its conception was planted far from the college town.
Honarmand had, up until the age of 35, run an antique rug store in Iran. The rug store did well, but his liberal political stance compelled him to seek democracy, freedom and a world-class education for his children abroad.
Six years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which saw the overthrow of the shah’s regime and the rise of the Islamic Republic, he left Iran. Without knowing any English and with only $100 in his back pocket, Honarmand with his wife and children moved to El Cerrito, California, to sell flowers.
Why flowers? Simple: They were “inexpensive.” And, he said, everybody appreciates them.
Picking up and examining one of his orchid lilies, Honarmand says, “These are my favorite, along with the iris. They’re beautiful. And, of course, everyone loves the rose.”
Honarmand worked from morning to evening, seven days a week, rain or shine. He sometimes ran his business out of buckets on street corners by the campus.
Within a few years, his business blossomed. Berkeley embraced the little flower shop, which sold gerberas, carnations and asters, as well as cacti and chili pepper plants. Delighted with his success, Honarmand used the profits to put all three of his children through school and, eventually, college here at UC Berkeley.
Honarmand has never returned to Iran — mainly, he said, because his commitment to his children’s education required him to remain in Berkeley for work. Black-and-white photographs of the family he left behind in Iran decorate the store’s front counter.
Now that his children have graduated and established their own lives, Honarmand is planning to finally visit his home country again. He’s just waiting for the right circumstances.
“Do I miss Iran? Without a doubt,” he said. “If today someone told me that Iran has achieved freedom and democracy, I’d hop on a plane and leave tomorrow morning.”
Honarmand has proudly and adamantly maintained this markedly liberal political stance throughout the years.
He’s a steadfast supporter of the United Nations, the institution that provided his family with the visas and resources necessary to emigrate to the United States. Last month, he paid a visit to its headquarters in New York City.
“I never received an education. Since childhood, I’ve been working,” he said. “That’s partly why I support democracy, because I believe that it brings more accessible education.”
To this end, he’s tried to support what he believes to be like-minded student organizations such as the International House and the Iranian Student Cultural Organization the best way he knows how: with flowers. He’ll give any student group focused on spreading democracy “flower donations.”
Awards from these student groups recognizing Honarmand for his contributions to the community drape the flower shop’s walls.
But it’s the Berkeley students he most enjoys talking to. He’ll dispense advice along with their change, free of charge.
“When a young man comes here and tries to buy $50 worth of flowers for a girl, I don’t let him,” he said, grinning. “I tell him that for now, one rose is enough and that he should concentrate on his studies.”
Now, Honarmand is gradually reducing his workload. Recently, he moved his store from Durant to a stand located next to Urban Outfitters on Bancroft. He continues to run his business mainly, he said, because he enjoys keeping himself busy and talking with people.
“Whatever people can pay, I’ll accept,” he said. “I don’t like money that much. I don’t need it.”
Several students stop by the shop to look at the flowers of vivid and various shades. To each, he first asks, “How are you?” and then reassures, “Don’t worry. You tell me what you need, and I’ll give you a good price.”
One girl seems hesitant still, prompting Honarmand to inquire as to what her favorite flower is: “roses.” So he gives her one for free.