Following Brooks House fire, fate of shops unclear

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BRATTLEBORO -- Following a devastating fire that ripped through the historic Brooks House building April 17, the owners of its eight businesses are salvaging what they can from their waterlogged shops and restaurants.

The length of time that Brooks House's commercial spaces might remain out of commission is still unknown, as is the future for many of the wide array of businesses that called the building home, most of which are locally owned.

When the owners of the Mole's Eye, Jumi Shop, the Book Cellar, Brilliance, Adagio Trattoria, Wasteland, Dragonfly Dry Goods and Ultimate Impressions were able to enter their stores for the first time Tuesday, they found themselves faced with soggy carpeting, collapsed ceiling tiles and basements full of water.

Inventory that remained intact was often stained with black, ashy water. A strong smell of smoke clung to the items that were recovered.

The fire was contained to the fourth and fifth floors of the Brooks House. The building contained 59 residential units, 48 of which were being leased at the time, as well as WVEW, Brattleboro's community access radio station, located on the second floor.

With the exception of the Mole's Eye, which was in the basement, all businesses were located on the ground floor, which sustained significant smoke and water damage along with the rest of the building.

Much of the nearly 2 million gallons of water used to squelch the blaze seemed to settle in the basement, where many of the business owners stored their inventory.

"We had a lot of stuff in the basement, and it was drenched," said Michael Kiziltan, of Newfane, the owner of Brilliance.

"At first, there was three feet of water down there, but it's since drained out," Kiziltan said. He estimated that he lost about $100,000 in merchandise.

Brilliance sells fine jewelry, carpets, rugs and home goods. Kiziltan opened the family business 22 years ago and runs it with his daughter, Hale Kiziltan, also of Newfane. Brilliance was located in the Brooks House for nearly 16 years.

Another of his daughters, Hande Kiziltan, made the drive from her home in Connecticut when she heard about the fire.

Wednesday afternoon, she was helping her father and sister move inventory into a rental unit in the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, located across the street from Brooks House.

All the business owners were required to wear safety helmets and were allowed to enter the building only when accompanied by a firefighter. The Kiziltan family realized the wisdom of the precautions when a ceiling tile unexpectedly fell while they were clearing out their sales floor.

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"The whole ceiling fell on the storage case," Hande Kiziltan said. "Right after we moved the jewelry out of it, we left for a few minutes and when we came back, the ceiling had fallen on top of it."

"Our jewelry is mostly gemstones, so they would just have been shattered, basically," she said.

She said the store's rugs were destroyed in the water; the colors ran together too much, and they couldn't be saved.

Salvaged paperwork was taken home and painstakingly strung from a clothesline to dry, which actually worked, Hande Kiziltan said, laughing.

"It dried out, and you can read it," she said.

The family said it is seeking a new space where they can re-open Brilliance within the next few months.

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"We can't wait forever," Hande Kiziltan said. "We have to make a living."

Thinking fast in an effort to stay afloat during these uncertain times, other business owners have come up with their own unique solutions.

Ultimate Impressions hair salon moved into Enright & Company on Canal Street. With two employees on maternity leave and plans to expand into the adjacent, empty former Blockbuster, there's plenty of space to go around, said Karen Nadeau, owner of Ultimate Impressions.

"I think we're settling in very well in a very short amount of time," Nadeau said. "The staff here is really fabulous, very helpful."

Nadeau said she will not be looking for a new storefront; she and her two employees are calling Enright & Company their new home.

She said there wasn't much she could take from the old salon.

"There were a few items we were able to take out, but not much," she said. "Everything is just soaked with water."

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"We were able to get our scissors," Nadeau said, adding that though they might seem insignificant, they are especially important and difficult to replace.

"That's like a carpenter without your tools," she said.

Nadeau said she's very grateful to the Enrights for allowing her to set up shop just two days after the fire. By Tuesday, the phone lines from Ultimate Impressions were even switched to Enright & Company so they could continue booking appointments.

Alice Luhrmann, of Dragonfly Dry Goods, expects that she will rely more heavily on her successful online store in the months to come. Unfortunately, she said, her online orders are shipped from the Brooks House store, where almost everything was damaged.

"I'm not exaggerating," Luhrmann said. "I sell linens and pottery and French furniture, and even the furniture made with iron and steel was somewhat damaged."

The water that poured down into her store was "torrential," she said.

"I have bowls 12 inches deep that are full of water, my trash can in the basement was half-filled with water -- I'm hoping to be able to salvage some of the pottery, but it's going to need to be washed because the water that came through the ceiling was black."

Luhrmann said there's little left that she can sell at retail value, but she hopes to have a "fire sale," where she will offer slightly damaged goods at a large discount.

For now she's focused on moving her inventory and filing insurance claims, but she plans to begin turning her focus to her Internet store soon. Already it generates about 50 percent of Dragonfly's sales, she said.

"It's great to just leap into that," she said, adding that she had been thinking lately about concentrating more on the website.

"It will be an easy next step for me, but I'll miss the income of the storefront, and the people. That will be missed."

Jaime Cone can be reached at jcone@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.


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