Anyone driving down Forbes Avenue through Squirrel Hill in the last two weeks probably noticed a hole in the business district’s usually bright storefronts: Levin’s Furniture, which opened just 17 months ago, was totally boarded up.
The furniture and mattress store was the site of a large fire the morning of April 7 that gutted the front of Levin’s and caused smoke damage to the adjacent Littles Shoes and Bangkok Balcony, a Thai restaurant on the top floor. All three sites have remained closed since the fire; there were no injuries reported.
But the 5800 block of Forbes Avenue is making a swift recovery, as the stores’ staffs work to prepare for their reopenings.
“We’re going to rebuild,” said Robert Levin, owner of Levin’s Furniture. “We have to wait until we’re given the green light by various inspectors, who need to check to make sure that everything is sound — the walls, ceilings. That process is still going on.”
Levin estimated that store damages totaled $50,000.
While passersby the morning of the fire saw a storefront ravaged by flames, Levin’s director of business development, Joe Fleckenstein said, “The level of damage was confined to [the] front 10 feet of the store — the severe damage.”
According to Fleckenstein, a gas meter in the front of the store caused the extreme damage visible from the street when it caught fire and went on to blow out the storefront window.
“The rest [of the store] was simply smoke and water damage,” Fleckenstein said.
The fire began when “a small light on a display overheated and caught something flammable on fire,” said Levin. “It was bad luck that it was right next to the gas line.”
Next door, Littles Shoes owners Joel Sigal and his son Justin rushed everyone out of their store as soon as they noticed the fire; both Levin’s and Bangkok Balcony were unoccupied when the fire began.
“After a while, it looked like we were in trouble,” said Justin Sigal. “The store was filled up with smoke completely — the store was all black. No one waited to smell smoke to get out. It was a real fire, so we were out of there.”
While Levin’s carried very little inventory in the store, as the majority of merchandise is delivered from the company’s warehouse, Fleckenstein said, “there were no deliveries interrupted. Every customer who had pickups with us has received their merchandise.”
There are also six additional Levin’s locations in the Pittsburgh area.
Eileen Nareedokmai, co-owner of Bangkok Balcony, as well as Silk Elephant, said the restaurant is about “four weeks from reopening.”
She described the damage to the restaurant, located directly above Levin’s, as moderate.
“Our progress is interdependent on Levin’s progress,” she said. “When they get their space all cleared out, then we’ll be able to seal our space.” Work to be done in the restaurant, she said, includes replacing windows, redoing the stairwell and rebuilding a wall.
Little’s Shoes “lost everything,” said Justin Sigal. “We needed new carpet, ceiling tiles, shoes and socks” due to smoke damage. The only part of the store with actual fire damage was its outside awning.
“Our shelving in the back was safe,” he said, “but everything’s being wiped down a million times.”
Littles reopened on April 21, within the next week, which “is pretty amazing,” said Sigal.
He spoke to the outpouring of support from the community: “Anyone we’ve needed to help fix things has reacted and been phenomenal. The shoe community has been amazing as well, getting us product, almost stopping what they were doing to get us shoes so we can get back in business. There have been a lot of nice gestures from vendors on the street — seeing if we need coffee, need food. Customers have even called to see how they can help out. It’s been amazing.”
Levin said he also “appreciates the patronage of our customers so far. We’re certainly sorry for the inconvenience. I know it’s an eyesore.”
Levin said he was unsure how long the rebuilding process would take before the store will reopen, but it will be “as soon as possible.”
But more important than any store damage, said Levin, “we’re just very fortunate, grateful and lucky that the fire didn’t occur when the businesses were occupied. That would’ve been serious.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)