After blaze, owners getting back to business

Four months after a fire destroyed their livelihoods, some of the business owners in the old Amherst Plaza in Amherst are getting their lives back in order. The fire began in one of the Route 101A mall’s vacant units June 12 and destroyed five businesses: Lotus Nail, Debbie’s Beauty Salon, Designer Consigner, Covered Bridge Creations and the Amherst House of Pizza. The cause is considered suspicious and police are now leading the investigation.

The highly visible fire stopped eastbound traffic and drew watchers from nearby restaurants. Smoke from the blaze blotted out the sunset and the fire was hot enough to melt the vinyl siding on the KFC-Taco Bell next door.

Debbie Cray had worked at Debbie’s Beauty Salon, owned by her mother, Gloria Smith, for almost 30 years when the fire began shortly before 7 p.m.

Cray and Linda Gouleg, another stylist at the salon, may have had the easiest time rebuilding their lives. Less than a week after the fire both had found work at other salons, Cray said.

Cray, 51, of Milford, is working at Stephen Marx Hair Salon in Milford. Just the nature of her job made it easy to move on. She rented space at the Nashua Street salon and has brought most of her old customers with her.

“We’re all doing OK. We had to make the best of it,” she said. “We talk about it all the time, but (the salon is) not going to come back so you have to go on.”

Cray was in the building with a 93-year-old customer when the fire started and called her mother as she watched the family business go up in flames.

Smith, 78, of Brookline arrived at the scene later. The fire has forced her into retirement, Cray said. Before the fire, Smith still worked at the salon one day a week.

“She does miss it,” Cray said. “It was very hard on her at first, but she seems to be doing very well now.”

Diane Grigas, owner of Covered Bridge Creations, a yarn shop, has reopened her business at Heritage Place on Route 101A in Amherst. Her store didn’t burn but suffered extensive water and smoke damage.

“It hasn’t been easy. It’s been very difficult,” Grigas said. “It’s been a very horrific and tough summer.”

Grigas moved into the new location at the beginning of August but spent weeks renovating and only opened at the beginning of October.

Even though a large section of the mall did not burn, the entire building remains fenced off and closed to the public, putting the rest of the business owners in the same predicament as those who were burned out.

Kerri Kirrane, manager of the Mayo Group’s commercial division, said the plaza’s certificate of occupancy was revoked the night of the fire.

About three-quarters of the units were either burned down or suffered smoke and water damage, Kirrane said, including the utility room.

The Mayo Group’s insurance company told the owners to secure the site and not to touch it until the individual business owners’ insurance companies had conducted their own investigations.

Heather Bodholdt’s store, Twice as Nice Consignments, wasn’t touched by the fire, but she was still forced to relocate.

“That’s the most frustrating thing for me. I am lucky (the store didn’t burn,) but it’s the same result,” she said.

“My place has been set up and ready to go for four months, since the day I left. I thought I’d be back in business by the weekend.”

In late September, Bodholdt bought a location at 104 Route 101A and hopes to open November 1.

Bodholdt had already closed her store when the fire started. She happened to be driving by that evening and “saw this big cloud of smoke.” When she arrived, the fire was starting to envelop the Amherst House of Pizza and “went pretty fast from there.”

Bodholdt’s lease with the mall’s owner, the Mayo Group, expires at the end of November, but she hasn’t been able to reach anyone from the company since the fire. Bodholdt owns the new building.

“It’s been rough the whole time,” she said.

“She cried a lot,” said her mother, Shirley Scichilone. “It was very sad.”

Until the mall’s utility room is rebuilt, Kirrane said, the mall doesn’t have sewer or water service, which means even the business not damaged during the fire can’t reopen.

The company is “looking into our options” for reopening the mall, Kirrane said, but there’s no estimate to when it will be ready. Considering the extensive damage and changes to building codes since the mall was built, it’s likely there will be some “reconfiguration,” she said.

“It’s too early to say at this point in time,” Kirrane said. “We are anxious to have the site in our control and to move forward in a positive light.”