Why you should care
Because there are probably a lot more than 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, no matter what Wallace Stevens said.
My family opened the Firestore (originally called the New York Firefighter’s Friend) in 1991. It was a little 250-square-foot “Firematic Boutique.” By September 11, 2001, it had doubled in size, and, along with its companion police shop — New York 911 opened in ’97 — next door, it had become a destination shopping location for firefighters, EMS, police, their families, friends and supporters from all over the world. We had created a great mom-and-pop cottage industry and had the best clientele in the world.
When we were allowed back into lower Manhattan and into our shops a few days after the 9/11 attacks, the first person to enter the shop was Spike Lee. He walked in, nodded hello and then walked a lap or two around the store. He looped back toward the door and walked out. He took about three steps before he turned around and came back. He walked up to the counter, put his hands on the glass as though he were bracing himself and made direct eye contact with me for the first time.
“I don’t know what to do. … I have to do something, but I don’t know what to do. …”
His eyes showed anger and anguish and frustration. Everything that every New Yorker had been wrestling with for the last three days. He ended up buying an FDNY ball cap, removed his famous “B” for Brooklyn cap, put the new one on and exited the shop.
The word spread to Ground Zero that the shop was open. The next morning, I arrived to a line of people, mostly volunteers who had been working “the pile,” standing in the rain. It was an extraordinary sight — the line neatly, silently, running all the way down the block, past FDNY Ladder 20 and around the corner. People lined up because they were hurt and grieving, desperate to share their sorrow with others feeling the same loss and vulnerability. They needed to pull on a shirt or cap. They had to do something. When baseball resumed, members of both the Yankees and the Mets were wearing caps from our shops.
For us, running the store was no longer just a matter of running a business. The shop was a part of the collective mourning and healing process. We shut down our website and threw away thousands of internet orders. There was just no way to get the products to fulfill them nor time in the day to contact the customers, so in the trash they went. At one point the only things we had in stock was the new memorial shirt we had designed at the request of the customers. It became the focal point of our gradually restocking the shop.
The mood of the stores had transitioned from a light, upbeat atmosphere of celebration to one of somber tribute. In the months that followed, we had the honor of meeting thousands of incredible people who traveled to New York to help with rescue and recovery, and finally to attend the hundreds of memorials and funerals. We met the mothers, fathers, wives and children of those killed that day, and we listened to, and shared with, thousands of visiting Members of Service (MOS). We grieved with them for lost friends, lost family and a collective lost innocence.
The one positive was that we were able to donate more than $250,000 to various causes that directly benefited Members of Service and their families. We also gave more than twice that amount in job discounts from their purchases to charities, firefighters, police, EMS, FEMA, Red Cross and a wide variety of other federal agencies. There was no way for us to enjoy this kind of “success.” We considered it blood money and were happy that something positive could come of it.
People said things like we “hit the lottery,” or, “we must be rich.” But that was not the case. Despite the initial extreme demand for our products, within five years of 9/11, our total sales were down 50 percent of what they had been the year before the Trade Center attacks. Our little cottage industry had exploded, creating competition everywhere, and we were left trying to salvage our business. We relocated the store in 2006 to the busier neighborhood of Greenwich Village, but that was only a temporary fix. The end began six years ago when St. Vincent’s Hospital closed. This pulled several thousand people out of the area each day. For five years we were dying a slow death, borrowing from here to pay there, depleting our savings, selling our home, trying to find a level where the math worked, but each year the target moved a little further away. On June 14, 2015, the Firestore closed its doors amidst local retail blight, construction around the shop, road closures and the final blow — the building was wrapped in scaffolding for two months. A perfect storm for retail failure.
Our very last customer was a family with a little chubby-cheeked blond 2-year-old boy. He wanted the fire rain boots that were still in the window. Annie, my wife, got the boots out and showed them to him. He grabbed them and held them to his chest. The parents offered to pay for them, but Annie declined. Then she said, “Here, he should have the helmet to match,” and handed them the last item in our store.
Now? Now we’re trying to make ends meet with the website NYFirestore.com. We carried a lot of debt when we closed the store, so we’re still paying a lot off. No one wants to hire a 54-year-old former store owner. So it goes.