WEST ORANGE, NJ — A Thanksgiving boiler fire did not cause much damage to 98 Washington St., thanks to the quick response of the West Orange Fire Department. The WOFD was able to extinguish the flames while they were still confined to the basement, leaving the boiler itself and the nearby hot water heater as the only items destroyed. But no heat and no hot water caused the building to be declared uninhabitable. And that meant the businesses located there had no home at the worst possible time — the holiday season.
Froncel Anderson and Avian Regan — owners of Purchased Possessions, a clothing store, and Manestream Beauty Bar, a salon, respectively — were particularly facing a blue Christmas since the nature of their businesses requires a storefront for customers to visit. Yet the holidays are called “the season of giving” for a reason, as the two soon found out. Almost immediately after the fire was extinguished, Anderson and Regan received a gift in the form of some very selfless neighbors willing to offer them space in their own buildings.
And the source of Regan’s generosity was especially unexpected — Dagmarh Souffrant, the owner of the competing salon across the street, who is allowing Regan operate out of her own location.
“I really appreciated the fact that she opened her doors to me,” Regan told the West Orange Chronicle in a Dec. 15 phone interview. “Not everyone would do that.”
For Souffrant, who owns Les 6’zo, not offering Regan a chair would have been unthinkable. She told the Chronicle she knows how hard it is not having a space in which to work, and she wanted to ensure that Regan could serve her clients. Though some business owners would never help a competitor, Souffrant said she does not view other salons as rivals.
On the contrary, she sees them as family, and family members are there for each other.
“I’m always willing to help people,” Souffrant said in a Dec. 16 phone interview. “I could’ve been in that situation and needed someone to help me out, and she could’ve opened her arms to me.”
Regan said she feels the same way, which is why she shares everything from knowledge to clients with her so-called competition. In fact, she asked for a spot at Les 6’zo after meeting one of the stylists who works there a few weeks beforehand. And after Souffrant invited her to stay — at a reduced commission charge, no less — Regan jumped at the chance. She said she moved her materials into her temporary home the day after the fire and, after informing her clients of the change, was up and running the day after that.
“We never skipped a beat,” Regan said.
Anderson, on the other hand, did not know what to do after the fire. He was fortunate that none of his inventory had any smoke damage, but he had no place to sell the clothing. And he certainly needed one, telling the Chronicle that the holiday shopping season represents approximately 25 to 30 percent of his business. So he called Megan Brill, executive director of the Downtown West Orange Alliance, the day after the fire with the hope that she could help.
She did, and in a big way. Brill told the Chronicle she knew the store at 257 Main St. was empty, so she put its manager, Joe Scalamoni, in touch with Anderson so the two could work out an agreeable temporary lease. Once they did, she alerted the township to the situation so that all approvals could be granted as quickly as possible.
But before a certificate of occupancy could be granted and before Anderson could move in, Scalamoni had to do a lot of work to ready the unit, which he wanted to do quickly so Anderson would not miss out on too much of the holiday shopping season. As a result, Scalamoni ended up emptying the building of the antiques being stored there, changing the ceiling lights, putting it in a new faucet, replastering the bathroom walls, and putting in a new bathroom floor and toilet all in a 16-hour period.
It was a staggering amount of work to do in such a short timeframe, but Scalamoni said it was worthwhile.
“It’s a pleasure trying to help a local business in the community,” Scalamoni told the Chronicle in a Dec. 16 phone interview. “It’s the least I could do. I would hope if I was in a bad situation someone would help me.”
Anderson was back up and running in roughly two weeks’ time, which he said is an unusually quick period to move into a new storefront. He said he is grateful for the level of support Brill, Scalamoni and the township showed him, too. After spending years doing business in Bloomfield and Montclair, he said it was entirely unexpected.
“I doubt very seriously I would have received the same consideration and response” in another town, Anderson said in a Dec. 15 phone interview. “I love this town and I love what it stands for.”
For Brill, it was a job well done. The executive director said the Downtown Alliance maintains connections with businesses throughout town so it can meet their needs. Very often it is the first place businesses go for help, she said, as Anderson did.
Yet to see community members go above and beyond to help those in need as so many did after the fire was special, Brill said.
“I’m very lucky that I get to see the kindness and the generosity of people,” Brill said in a Dec. 15 phone interview. “When there’s a need, West Orange rises up and helps in any way it can.”
Meanwhile, Anderson and Regan may soon be back in their units. According to Kevin Pierce, the owner of 98 Washington St., the installation of a new boiler has already started. Pierce also told the Chronicle that the basement has been cleared of all smoke damage, the sheetrock was removed, electrical wires are being reconnected and the smoke alarm system is being repaired. In addition, he said the locks broken by the WOFD — to open all doors on the premises for ventilation — have been replaced.
Some work still has to be done though, Pierce said, including the repair of a hole in the floor of a retail unit that the firefighters made to get at the fire in the basement. Luckily, he said, the tenant of that building was already in the process of moving out. Sean Hill of Friendware Computers, the fourth commercial tenant in the building, has been working from his home.
Pierce said he hopes his three remaining commercial tenants and six residential tenants can return to their units by the end of the week. If the boiler is not installed by then, he expects they will be able to come back by the end of the year at the latest.
Additionally, Pierce said he is waiting to hear the results of his insurance company’s investigation into the cause of the boiler fire. He said the boiler was only four years old and had no history of problems.