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Best of the Best: Zachary’s Comeback From Fire Sale

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Burned out on Black Friday, a store has its biggest season ever

BLACK FRIDAY. For most retailers, the day symbolizes extreme stress and hectic action. Not to mention big profits. But for Steve Samaras, owner of Zachary’s Jewelers, Black Friday 2005 would mean something far more ominous. 

Shortly before 8 p.m., Samaras was out with his extended family at a local restaurant. His father had passed away one week before (an event Samaras describes as “the most difficult loss of my personal life”), and everyone was in town for the memorial services. Suddenly, his cell phone rang – it was one of his senior staff. “I need you back here right away” was all he said before hanging up. 

Obviously, something was very wrong. 

Samaras jumped in his car and headed back to his store. On the way, a friend called to say, “There’s a fire in the building next to yours.” 

Hundreds of people lined Annapolis’ smoke-filled Main Street, watching the growing conflagration. Samaras parked his car and tried to run into his building, but firefighters pulled him away.  

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From across the street, he watched for the next six hours as his store was incinerated in a five-alarm blaze. The fire had begun in a faulty junction box, and as it escalated, the choice was made to sacrifice the Zachary Jewelers building in order to save the neighboring historical buildings. 

News cameras surrounded him as he watched the inferno, and Samaras’ words would eventually be played on CNN and around the globe: “All of that is just stuff. It can be replaced, rebuilt. You can’t bring my dad back.” 

REBUILDING

After a long night, Samaras gathered his staff together on Saturday morning, in the back room of a business neighbor across the street. “I told them insurance had us covered for a full year. So, we could take our time and rebuild over the next year,

or we could try to re-open the store during the holidays,” he says. The Zachary’s staff was unanimous – they didn’t want to lose their client base. They would try to re-open. 

Invitations for the annual client holiday party had already been sent out, and the event was supposed to take place in seven days. Could it be done? 

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“We came up with a list of 254 action items,” says Samaras. “By 5 p.m., we had plans in place to address all but 14 of those.” While the on-duty staff of four had tried to save as much inventory as possible during the blaze, 30-40% was lost or damaged in the fire. But Zachary’s vendors came through.  

“Within two days, we had purchases and memos totaling $3.5 million in inventory at cost, all winging its way to Annapolis,” says Samaras. 

This kindness and extra effort was shown not only by the store’s jewelry vendors, but by the staff and community as well. The Zachary’s team “literally doubled” the amount of time they would have spent in the store during the holidays, according to Samaras. They also found 15 temporary showcases and had them purchased within hours of the Saturday meeting. 

The store’s bank opened its vault so that Zachary’s could secure the jewelry that was saved after the fire – at no expense. The Historic Annapolis Foundation offered to loan Zachary’s a building for a couple of months – rent-free. Amazingly, two of Zachary’s competitors even offered to provide storage space to the store and were very responsive to its plight. “This was an amazing thing for them to do, especially during the busiest time of their year,” says Samaras. 

Perhaps the greatest gift of all came from Zachary’s landlord, Harvey Blonder. Blonder owns several businesses in Annapolis, one of which was a souvenir shop just five doors down from Zachary’s old location. The shop sat on the corner of Main Street at the City Dock, known as the most popular retail area in Maryland. He offered to move out and let Samaras rent the space. 

“Harvey told me, ‘Steve, the best thing that could have happened to you, happened,'” recalls Samaras. “He said the fire had forced me to move into a new space, and that it would pay off. He was 1,000% right.” 
Though Samaras says he never would have made the move otherwise, he decided to take the higher-rent space, which once housed a Banana Republic and features a warm, inviting showroom. The city moved quickly to process the official papers and approve the space for its new use. Local businesses stepped up to install full security systems, phone, and computer service in a matter of days. 

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A NEW BEGINNING

On Saturday, December 3, Annapolis Mayor Ellen Moyer was on hand to assist Samaras in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Zachary’s Jewelers. That night, close to 400 people filled the store for the client holiday party. At 7:51 p.m., a guest noted that it was exactly one week since the fire. Someone referred to Samaras as “George Bailey” (from the James Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life). 

“These people came out and their hearts were full,” he explains. “It’s almost like being eulogized. The closest feeling I can think of is expressed by that movie, right down to the little bell that could represent my dad.” 

In just three days after re-opening, Zachary’s made up for the loss incurred over the seven days closed. “Our holiday season was almost double the best we ever had,” says Samaras, who also notes that the walk-by traffic is triple what they had before. He says the amount of customers coming in from Annapolis, Baltimore, and even Washington, D.C. was nothing less than an “onslaught.” Zachary’s was so busy, two of the store’s salespeople never even had a chance to purchase holiday gifts. 

Many customers came out simply to support the store in its time of need. Samaras recalls that many told him that they weren’t planning to buy jewelry this holiday season, but that they thought it appropriate in this case. Still, even without the outpouring of sympathy, the new location would have generated a sales increase in its own right.  
“We’re in the premier location in all of Annapolis,” he explains. At 3,700 square feet, the new location is nearly double that of the old one down the street. “This store also offers us an opportunity to attract all the branded lines we couldn’t get before. It really was a blessing in disguise.” 

In the end, Samaras says that if he could offer other retailers only one piece of advice, it would be this: you get back what you give. “In retail, we always feel like we’re being asked for things,” says Samaras. “But no matter how difficult it is, you have to continue to give.” His years of serving on local boards and donating to community causes were repaid many times over by the people, businesses, and government of Annapolis. 

It’s a lesson that Samaras believes is no coincidence. One day, during a short break from the frenzy of relocating the store, he was approached by his sister, Evangeline, who also works in the business.  

“You know who started that fire, don’t you?” she said. “It was Dad. We haven’t had time to feel the pain of his passing because our focus has been on getting open and rebuilding.”  

As Samaras turned to see his 78- year-old mother smiling as she brought in lunch to the entire staff, he had to admit that maybe, just maybe … she was right

BESTINFO

Zachary’s Jewelers
Address: 100 Main Street, Annapolis, MD 21401 
Phone: (410) 266-5555 
URL: Click here

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