The Essex card shop was destroyed by fire. His clients could save him.

It was a typical Monday afternoon at the Essex Card Shop, an encyclopedic stationery store in Manhattan’s East Village. Business had been stable. Jayant Patel, the 80-year-old manager, had just noticed a teenager wandering around, before an older woman, perhaps his grandmother, shoved him out. Now the store was empty, the diligent manager at his station behind the counter.

However, within minutes, Patel smelled smoke and saw flames in the back. He took a broom and tried to put out the fire. It happened so fast there was no chance of grabbing the fire extinguisher, he said. Soon, Muhammad Aslam, the store owner, arrived to find his loyal friend struggling alone to put out the fire. They called 911.

No one was killed in the two-alarm fire that destroyed the store, a neighborhood hub, on January 10, just one day after a tragic, smoke-choking fire in a Bronx apartment building killed 17 people. Still, many locals were distraught, as evidenced by a slew of social media posts and offers to do something — anything — to keep the family business going.

The passionate reactions from the neighborhood have led to a fundraising initiative, which could very well save the store.

At the time of the fire, the 1,100-square-foot store’s four aisles and basement were packed with inventory. Eileen Clancy, film and video archivist, described it as “anti-slippery, the kind of place where I felt like the bubble wrap and envelopes in the upper levels could fall on me.”

Sandi Bachom, a video journalist and client, seemed stunned by the news. “It’s hard to explain what they are to the community,” she said. “They were open every day during the pandemic shutdown.” He compared the store, a fixture on Avenue A since 1923, to “a small department store, with hardware, Christmas decorations, purse-sized hand sanitizer, masks, and Clorox wipes — things you couldn’t find anywhere.” another place”. On the morning of the fire, she said, her roommate had just bought winter gloves there.

Like several of his clients, Mr. Patel is a writer. In 1993, he published his autobiography that links spiritual quotes with the hardships he faced in New York City as an Indian immigrant. Over the years, he has given out more than 4,000 copies of the 187-page paperback free to interested customers. A movie, “desperate efforts”, based on the book and directed by Salim Khassa, was released in 2012.

“We made it a little bit spicy,” Patel said of how the film diverged from his book.

At the store, Mr. Patel wrote thoughtful sayings on Essex Card Shop stationery and used the store’s copier to make 30 to 40 brochures a week to offer customers. An example: Personal happiness is the greatest donation to the world.

“I came up with that myself,” Patel said. “People come back and tell me that after reading them they feel uplifted.”

WFUV DJ and long-time local Delphine Blue described the store as “a miniature version of a museum,” where she could lose track of time wandering the aisles. “They took my passport photos there and I didn’t like them, and they let me redo them for free. I mean, who does that? It’s heartbreaking as we’ve lost so many small businesses in the neighborhood and this one is so human.”

In recent years, the East Village has seen offbeat spots disappear like the Gem Spa winery, the gift shop alphabets and the home goods store Lancellottias well as numerous record stores, restaurants and bars.

“These little private stores make up the character of the neighborhood,” said David Cale, a writer, actor and East Village resident of more than 30 years. “If you replace them with big chains, it becomes like Anywhere USA”

Catherine Texier, a French-born author and teacher who has lived in the East Village since the 1980s, was able to pick up her coveted German and French-branded notebooks and favorite pens at the Essex Card Shop. A folder for her 2021 tax receipts was her most recent purchase. Jody Oberfelder, a choreographer, found the store to be a source of inspiration when she dreamed up new works.

Mr. Aslam, 54, estimates the loss, including inventory, to be around $300,000, not even a Post-it note was salvaged. Fortunately, the cash register survived. On the day of the fire, Mr. Aslam said he had just unloaded several boxes of produce at the store and had gone to sit in his car to wait for free parking at 4 p.m. When he returned to the store, he found Mr. Patel fighting the flames.

The two men met in 1991, when Aslam came to New York from Pakistan and got a job for Patel at the stationery store he owned near Columbia University. India and Pakistan have a history of conflict, of course, but Aslam ruled that out. “Blah blah, politics at home,” he said. “Here we are very good friends.”

In 2000, Mr. Patel purchased the lease on the Essex Card Shop, originally at 39 Avenue A, from a couple who had owned it since 1974. Mr. Aslam managed it and soon after became a partner. When Mr. Patel decided to return to India, Mr. Aslam became a sole proprietor. And when Mr. Patel changed his mind and returned to New York, Mr. Aslam asked him to be the manager. In the summer of 2020, the business moved a few doors north to 47 Avenue A.

Stacie Joy, photographer from EV duel, a local news site, learned of the fire and rushed to the address at 4:40 p.m., finding the street filled with smoke and firefighters. “They pumped a lot of water into the building,” he said. “The cement and brick walls were a firewall, so it didn’t spread to the apartment above or to the adjacent buildings.”

Of course, center threadsa knitting supply store to one side, and a gift emporium, exit 9, on the other, reported little damage. The last customer Patel saw, the teenager, was arrested after an investigation and charged with second-degree arson, according to Jim Long, a spokesman for the New York Fire Department.

Saba Aslam, 27, the daughter of Mr. Aslam, said she didn’t care about social media until the day of the fire. To address the cascade of emotions from customers, many of whom said they wanted to help rebuild the store, she opened a GoFundMe account on behalf of her father. Within 24 hours, nearly 1,000 people had donated more than $40,000. The current goal is $100,000.

Until she saw the money and comments flooding GoFundMe, Bachom, the video journalist, thought she was the only one who felt a special connection to Patel and the store. Referencing the 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” she said, “He turns out to be like George Bailey.”

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