'We Know Your Voice Needs To Be Heard': The Heartbreak Of A Melrose Shopkeeper
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Nedjatollah "Ned" Harounian spent the morning of May 30, at his shoe-and-leatherwear store on Melrose Ave. getting ready to reopen. Palais Des Modes had been closed for about two months due to the coronavirus lockdowns. Harounian couldn't be more excited to finally open his doors again.
He cleaned the space, went through his inventory. Near the entrance, he set up a station of hand sanitizer, masks and gloves for customers. He left the store feeling ready to welcome them back.
He had no idea he'd be returning to his store that Saturday night to helplessly watch it burn.
George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. By the following weekend, no arrests had been made, and some protests around the country -- including in L.A. -- turned violent and spawned looting. In the crossfire were small businesses, many of which were already hit hard by the Covid-19 lockdown
On Melrose Avenue in West L.A., there weren't many stores or restaurants that were left unscathed on May 30. Harounian's store was no exception.
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"I don't know what to say. It's very bad," Harounian said solemnly. When we spoke, it had been exactly one week since his store burned and he was still processing what had happened:
"For what? For what? Fire? Here? Everything is gone."
Palais Des Modes has been on Melrose Avenue for more than 30 years. Harounian dedicated his life to the store, building it from the ground-up with his wife and children after immigrating from Iran in 1987. At the age of 81, he refuses to retire.
"I like work. It's my life, you know?" Harounian said. "I go home and there's no point. I have to work everyday. I like it."
As Melrose evolved to become one of L.A.'s trendiest neighborhoods, Harounian's store has remained a longtime fixture in the community. The business maintained a loyal clientele that ranged from local residents to celebrities, including Michael Jackson, Sylvester Stallone and Shaquille O'Neal.
As Harounian spoke, he was interrupted on a few occasions by pedestrians who stopped to share their sympathies and memories of the store. A teacher came by to say that many of his students frequented the store to buy Doc Martens.
The store has changed over the years, moving locations multiple times on the same street, and downsizing after the death of Harounian's wife, Yara, in 2017. What has remained consistent has been his reputation of kindness and work ethic among the Melrose community.
"We had customers that used to come here [who] bought shoes for themselves, and then they brought their kids and then they brought shoes for their kids," said Ebbi Harounian, Ned's son, who has helped his father operate the store ever since he was a teenager.
Father-and-son took me on a tour to survey the damages. There used to be endlessly stacked boxes and shelves of shoes. They had furniture they designed and built themselves. Ebbi directed my attention to a full-length mirror that had been with the family since they first opened. Now all that's left are burned shoes, blackened walls, broken furniture and glass, and a gaping hole in the ceiling.
For Ned, the store was a second home. The walls were once lined with personal photos and memorabilia that served as a record of the store's history -- a family album on display for everyone to see. With every new grandchild, every family occasion, every new milestone made, there was a photograph on the wall to mark the memory.
"My dad kept everybody's pictures -- my little sister, my nephew, my little nephew when he was born," said Ebbi as he fondly looked through the photos they were able to salvage from the debris. "His whole life was here, you know? All the pictures were on the wall ... but they ransacked and then they burned and they didn't leave anything for him."
As we continued to survey the damage, we made our way towards the back of the structure, when something caught Ebbi's eye.
"Oh my god, I just saw something," Ebbi said as he shuffled through a rack and pulled out a cream-white leather jacket, now streaked with burn marks. "This is a jacket that I made with designer Jeff Hamilton. That's an American eagle with an American star, and now it's burned to the crisp. Oh my God, I can't believe this jacket is still here! This destroys me."
It never occurred to the Harounians that their store could possibly be destroyed during the protests. Ebbi recalls finding out about what happened to his father's store while watching TV. A news crew was on the scene, broadcasting as firefighters attempted to put out the flames. Ebbi tried to call his father and finally was able to reach him.
"Dad, what are you doing?"
"Ebbi, I'm here."
"What are you doing there? Everything is on fire! Everything is engulfed on fire!"
"Where am I going to go? My whole life is burning down. I can't just go home and sit down."
The Harounians are estimating a loss of about $500,000 in merchandise alone. Their landlord is still in the process of assessing the property damage. They share the building with two other tenants who also experienced a considerable amount of damage to their stores.
They don't have insurance to help relieve any of their loss. State law doesn't mandate business tenants to have property insurance, and their landlord never required they have it as a part of their lease agreement. The Harounians said they couldn't afford it on top of paying $4,000 a month for rent and maintaining their inventory. Their landlord plans on repairing the building, but there's no timeline for when those repairs will be done, given the extent of the damage.
The store was Harounian's only source of income, so now they're leaning on family, friends and the community. They've been moved by the overwhelming response they've received, not only from local residents, but by people around the world. Their campaign has even received attention from actress Halle Berry who tweeted out her support.
An immigrant business owner in his 80s had his Melrose store looted then burned, and his recently deceased wife’s jewelry stolen. Things are crazy right now, but I hope we can all take a minute to help this man out!! Donate if you can. ❤️ https://t.co/4WSbFts9kN? pic.twitter.com/AgjqEaZjs9— Halle Berry (@halleberry) June 1, 2020
As upset as the Harounians were about losing their store, they hold no ill will against the protesters. Having left Iran to escape religious persecution, they supported the demonstrations and valued people's rights to protest against prejudice and inequality.
Ebbi said the looting should not distract from the Black Lives Matter movement, because of how important the issue and their fight continues to be. He believes the looters acted out of selfishness, not for the sake of the cause.
"Everyone has the right for their voice to be heard," Ebbi said. "We need our voice to be heard. We immigrated from Iran. We came here because we had issues with the government of Iran, religious issues. So we know what the reason is.
"We know your voice needs to be heard. But the people that looted and they burned the store, they were not for Black Lives Matters. These are people that are taking advantage of other people."
The Harounians, along with many other small business owners on Melrose, continue to clean up the damage. They see a long road ahead for rebuilding, but would like to reopen and stay in the same location when repairs to the building are made -- whenever that might be.
Until then, Ebbi can only hope his father will be able to return to work soon so he can go back to doing what he loves. Despite how bad the situation may seem, it seems Ned's resilience, strength and kindness will get the family through this tough time.
In response to the support they've received, Ned simply said: "Thank you to everybody."
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