Polly Hitt remembers waking up the morning of June 2, bleary eyed and thinking her glasses were dirty, before she realized the brown smudges that filled her vision came not from unclean lenses, but a thick haze of rising smoke.
“We were on fire.”
Hitt, a vendor at the Ye Olde City Antique Mall, lived in a loft apartment above the 18,000-square-foot space, and was asleep when an electrical spark at the mall ignited, and later destroyed, much of the warehouse that stored priceless antiques and collectibles.
“I got in my car, drove to the end of the parking lot and watched it burn,” Hitt said. “The rest is history.”
The charred rubble at 324 E. Locust St. is still visible today, with faded signs advertising the old mall space posted near disintegrated walls and blackened brick.
“Probably one of the most traumatic times in my life was to see the building going up in flames,” said Sandra Herring, long-time manager of the antiques mall. “But just from the very first day, we were all, ‘Now how can we rebuild? How can we do this? What can we do?’”
She said she and the owners, Bert and Robert Powell, along with many of the vendors, began planning that very week to move into the new building, remodel, and start over.
On Monday, after three months worth of hard work hauling out junk, ripping out walls, tearing down ceilings, removing old tile and otherwise readying the once-vacant space, the mall was ready to reopen once again.
“It’s just been a long, hard process but after finishing … everything looks wonderful,” Herring said. “We’re real blessed.”
Especially, she said, thanks to the efforts of Earnest and Maria Allison, who spent days on their hands and knees staining and working nonstop to get the space ship-shape for reopening.
On Wednesday afternoon, a steady stream of smiling customers filtered in and out of the fresh, neat and tidy space, one recently emptied, refurbished and outfitted with air conditioning and hundreds of trinkets and collectibles, from vintage leather jackets to decades-old glass bottles still full of Coca-Cola.
As they tried on sweaters and sifted through glittering jewelry, faded picture books, hand-painted trays and salt and pepper shakers, many smiled and mentioned just how glad they were to be back, while others, like Katie Cummins, from Arkansas, said they were excited to be visiting for the very first time.
“I’ve really enjoyed shopping here today,” Cummins said. “I collect vintage glassware for my bar cart in my apartment and there’s been a really cool assortment of different figures. Also, we’re doing some shopping for vintage Halloween decorations because that’s my favorite holiday.”
She said she loved the set-up of the antiques mall, how each booth was uniquely styled and the items were spread out to prevent overcrowding.
That, Herring explained, was made possible thanks to the new space.
“On Monday, it was wonderful because a lot of our old customers came and they were thrilled,” Herring said. “They were real excited with what we’ve been able to do. A lot of them say, ‘I think we like this better.’ We have a lot of nooks and crannies in this building that we didn’t have in the other building.”
She credited the “most amazing dealers” with shaping the antique mall into “one of the best in East Texas,” even after the fire.
Donna Bray, from Jacksonville, was nearby, setting up items in her booth with the help of a friend, Susy Smith.
She’s been in the antiques business since 1988, and said that being involved in this summer’s fire was “kind of striking.”
“You hardly ever see a fire, and you’re hardly ever involved in it,” Bray said. “I believe all the stuff on this earth is God’s stuff. Try breathing your last breath and see if you can take that breath of air with you. You can’t. You take nothing with you. I believe it’s all God’s stuff, and He just wanted some of it back.”
She said the owners have been “absolutely fantastic” to come through the fire and help rebuild, and that she’s excited to witness the continuing renovations.
In the near future, Herring said the owners hope to expand their facilities further by making use of the outdoor corridor and hauling in outdoor furniture, concrete statues and other antiques that can withstand the elements.
“It’s amazing,” Herring said. “It’s a little bit of a miracle and it definitely is beauty from ashes.”
And as for Hitt, who once called the place home, she said the changes have been absolutely wonderful.
“It’s so much better than it was, as much as we’re going to miss that old building,” Hitt said. “It’s newer, but it’s made better.”
Ye Olde City Antique Mall, located in the 300 block of E. Locust Street, is now open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.