It was a typical Monday afternoon at the Essex Card Shop, an encyclopedic stationery store in Manhattan’s East Village. Business had been steady. Jayant Patel, the 80-year-old manager, had just spotted a teenager walking by, only to be shoved by an older woman, possibly his grandmother. Now the store was empty, the conscientious manager at his post behind the counter.
Within minutes, however, Mr Patel smelled smoke and saw flames in his back. He grabbed 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 faithful friend struggling alone to put out the fire. They called 911.
No one died in the two-alarm blaze that destroyed the store, a neighborhood linchpin, on January 10, just a day after a tragic, smoky blaze at a Bronx apartment building set killed 17 people. Still, many locals were anguished, as evidenced by a flurry 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 shop.
At the time of the fire, the four aisles of the 1,100 square foot store and its basement were overflowing with inventory. Film and Video Archivist Eileen Clancy described it as “anti-slick, the kind of place where I felt like bubble wrap and envelopes from upper levels might fall on me.”
Sandi Bachom, 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.” She compared the shop, which has been on Avenue A since 1923, to “a small department store, with hardware items, Christmas decorations, purse-sized hand sanitizer, masks and Clorox wipes, things you couldn’t find anywhere else.” On the morning of the fire, she says, her roommate had just bought winter gloves there.
Like many of his clients, Mr. Patel is a writer. In 1993 he self-published his autobiography which links witty quotes to the difficulties he faced in New York as an Indian immigrant. Over the years, he has distributed 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 spicy,” Mr. Patel said of how the film deviated from his book.
At the store, Mr Patel would write thoughtful sayings about Essex Card Shop stationery, using the store’s photocopier to make 30 or 40 leaflets a week to give out to customers. An example: Personal happiness is the greatest gift in the world.
“I came up with that one myself,” Mr Patel said. “People come back and tell me after reading them that they feel uplifted.”
Delphine Blue, DJ at WFUV and longtime local, described the store as “a miniaturized version of a museum”, where she could lose track of time as she browses the aisles. “I had my passport photos taken there and I didn’t like them, and they let me have them redone for free. I mean, who does that? It’s heartbreaking because we’ve lost so many small businesses in the neighborhood and this one is so human.
“These little private stores are the personality of the neighborhood,” said David Cale, writer, performer and East Village resident for 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 favorite German- and French-branded notebooks and pens at Essex Card Shop. A folder for his 2021 tax receipts was his most recent purchase. Jody Oberfelder, choreographer, found in the shop a source of inspiration when she imagined new works.
Mr. Aslam, 54, estimates the loss, including inventory, at around $300,000, not even a Post-it to recover. Fortunately, the cash register survived. On the day of the fire, Mr Aslam said he had just unloaded several boxes of goods from the store and left to sit in his car to wait for free parking at 4 p.m. When he returned to the store he found Mr Patel battling the flames.
The pair met in 1991, when Mr. Aslam came to New York from Pakistan and found a job for Mr. Patel at the paper mill he owned near Columbia University. India and Pakistan have a history of conflict, of course, but Mr. Aslam brushed it off. “Blah, blah, politics back home,” he said. “Here we are very good friends.”
In 2000 Mr Patel bought the lease of Essex Card Shop, originally at 39 Avenue A, from a couple who had owned it since 1974. Mr Aslam managed it and soon after he was became a partner. When Mr. Patel decided to return to India, Mr. Aslam became the sole owner. And when Mr Patel changed his mind and moved back to New York, Mr Aslam asked him to be the manager. In the summer of 2020, the company moved a few doors north to 47 Avenue A.
Stacie Joy, photographer for Sorrow EV, a local news site, caught wind of the blaze 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,” she said. “The cement and brick walls were a firebreak, so it didn’t spread to the upstairs apartment or adjacent buildings.”
Indeed, downtown sona knitting supply store on one side and a gift store, Exit 9, on the other hand, reported little damage. The last customer Mr Patel saw, the teenager, was arrested after an investigation and charged with second-degree arson, according to New York Fire Department spokesman Jim Long.
Saba Aslam, 27, Mr Aslam’s daughter, said she didn’t care about social media until the day of the fire. To deal with the cascade of emotions from customers, many of whom said they wanted to help the store rebuild, she opened a GoFundMe account in her father’s name. Within 24 hours, nearly 1,000 people had donated over $40,000. The current goal is $100,000.
Until she saw money and comments flooding GoFundMe, Ms Bachom, the video journalist, thought she was the only one who felt a special connection to Mr Patel and the store. Referencing the 1946 film, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, she said: ‘Turns out he looks like George Bailey.’