When Jessen Fitzpatrick and Andria Rapagnola heard there might have been a flood in their shop after a winter storm Feb. 2, as they rushed over to check out what had happened, they could have never imagined they would be greeted with several inches of water standing in their popular showroom and water pouring into their storage areas downstairs.
What they thought might be a small problem turned out to be a catastrophic blow that nearly closed their 13-year-old custom hat business. Already challenged by the constraints of COVID-19 in the retail space, as well as the cancellation of special events and galas that drove sales, they stood in ankle-deep water, looked at each other, and sincerely wondered if their future included continuing their business.
“When we opened the door, the water was just racing in,” said Fitzpatrick. “It was like looking at each other and saying, ‘What do we do first?’ There was easily more than an inch of water on the floor.”
The biggest catastrophe was the storage space in the basement, which accommodates produce for their North End store and online sales. They keep about 12,000 hats at any one time in the store – some 3,000 in the upstairs showroom and 9,000 in the basement storage. That storage room is sealed on all sides from flooding and regulated with a HEPA filter too.
“The storage room is masonry dry locked and has HEPA filters and is protected, but the ceiling wasn’t,” said Rapagnola. “The water on the hardwood floor upstairs seeped through and by the time it got to the basement storage area, it looked like tea and smelled awful.”
In all, due to quick action, they believe they lost about 1,000 hats, and it could have been much more, but that has still been a major blow to inventory and a major loss to the business in a time when retail cannot shoulder large losses.
So clearly, the future was in question in that moment.
The good news this week is that the future does include Salmagundi on Centre Street, and it’s through the overwhelming kindness of the community and the perseverance of the two shop owners that will have rescued the venture.
Both said they are on track now to open next week.
“We have put so much into being open, safe and clean and keeping our business going that we were kind of ready,” said Fitzpatrick. “We’ve endured COVID, but this flood was like nothing else. If we hadn’t been preparing for the worst and hadn’t been able to jump into action, this would have killed us.”
Said Rapagnola, “On top of COVID, this took such a physical, psychological and emotional toll on us that I’m pretty much ready for anything now.”
The irony in it all is that the store had been adjusting to COVID right before the flood, renovating the store space so that the front of the store was an expanded and more interactive experience for customers. Meanwhile, the former shop space at the back of the store was transformed into an online headquarters to accommodate more internet sales traffic. Meanwhile, the custom hat workshop downstairs and other areas there were being renovated as well. Both said they were just hours away from finishing the project.
“When we came in on the day of the flood, we were going to be doing the final adjustments in the workshop,” said Fitzpatrick. “It was literally the day we would be doing the finishing touches of the renovation. It was so ironic it became the day of the flood.”
Not to mention the fact that their hat venture was being propped up by the JP store and the inventory within it. With things at their store in the North End slow due to lack of tourists and closed restaurants, they were keeping things going by activity at the JP store. With it flooded and closed, and COVID still exacting a pound of flesh on the business, both said they were exasperated.
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Rapagnola.
But they put their noses to the grindstone and saved as many hats as possible, cataloged their losses, and worked about a 70-hour week to button up the initial issues. An insurance claim was submitted, but those are questionable and slow to make payment.
That’s when some customers began to suggest turning to the community for fundraising efforts. Both were very wary, but were finally convinced, and the response was remarkable – bringing about some emotion in the two and showing them how much the community values their space as not just a store, but a valuable place in the community.
“In 13 years, we never considered a Go Fund Me page or a Kickstarter campaign,” said Fitzpatrick. “When we started business in 2007, people were still on MySpace. It wasn’t the kind of party we have today…A lot of customers after the flood told us to do a campaign, but it’s not in our nature to ask for help. Some customers made some compelling arguments…In the end, the way people responded to the Go Fund Me campaign was blow away. It takes courage to show you’re vulnerable, but it feels good too when the community responds to help.”
Rapagnola said the response to the flood campaign, and the sentiment they’ve gotten from customers during COVID, has put their business in a different perspective. Though they always knew people came in not just for hats, but for advice and for the experience, they didn’t know how much of a cornerstone they were to the community.
“Coupled with the pandemic, it has been an interesting time to go forward with the support of the community,” she said. “This has been amazing and there is light at the end of the tunnel. We can see it and we’re so happy to re-open and move past this.”