“This is the shop that our neighborhoods rebuilt,” says Kerry Kennedy, proprietor of K.S. Kennedy, Distinctive Floral, Gift and Gourmet which recently reopened in a new storefront just a few doors down from his former location on Western Avenue. The former location was destroyed by a New Year's Eve fire which also consumed Kerry's live in apartment and damaged adjacent businesses, including the Modern Cafe. While no one was injured in the fire, including Kerry's devoted four-footed companion Lucy, all three business suffered tremendous losses. The Modern Care has not decided whether to reopen yet.
Kerry's original store had become a destination shop for many throughout the Northside neighborhoods who appreciated the delightful accents he added, including the always freshly brewed coffee and a line of Swiss truffles available nowhere else in Pittsburgh. He also carries a line of LGBT oriented cards, the 10% line, which he chuckles about as he shares stories of matronly grandmothers picking out cards for their gay grandsons and nephews. Unlike traditional florists, he drew a tremendous amount of walk-in business, unusual considering he was the only retail establishment along Western Avenue, a corridor of the Northside which has been under scrutiny for revitalization efforts and home to several restaurants, bars and several abandoned storefronts.
Kerry chose the location because he wanted to one of the first ones in to what he perceived as a future boom area for Northside business. He stayed because of the people.
The night of New Years Eve, according to fire investigators, faulty wiring caused some sort of electrical arc “Act of God” which sent the first floor of the floral store up in flames. Kerry and his companions escaped into the night, leaving even his wallet behind to be consumed by the fire. He acknowledges that for a split second he contemplated running away as he watched fireman battle the flames. Kerry stayed with friends in Swissvale the night of the fire. He came back the following morning, New Years Day, and found Ed owner of the nearby Parador Inn standing in front of the storefront. Ed said “Please allow me to do this for you” and offered him the ballroom for a workspace and use of the room above for his residence.
Knowing he had a wedding and a funeral that weekend, he rolled up his sleeves and took over the Parador ballroom. People literally were knocking down the ballroom doors with donations of clothing, vases and other items all of which reminded him that the Northside is his home. People helped rebuild the business because they valued his store and the beauty he tried to bring to the community.
The outpouring of community support literally moves Kerry to moments of near tears and occasional speechlessness, which for those who know him, is not a frequent occurrence. One friend, an antique store owner from Tennessee, drove three days through winter storms hauling a ten foot trailer laden with furnishings for his new store. She spent one night in the parking lot of a Waffle House and the next in motel room with no electricity service. Kerry proudly points out the items she brought to him.
His card distributor loaded up his trunk with sample stock and gave the whole supply to Kerry which enabled him to triple his card display when he reopened. Card business has been so brisk that the distributor has been back weekly to keep the stock replenished.
When a neighboring tenant decided to close their business, the landlord immediately approached Kerry about reopening and he didn't hesitate. The outpouring of love and support from his community reaffirmed his original vision of a vibrant, dynamic Western Avenue and he fully plans to be part of that revitalization. Kerry has also relocated his personal residence to a carriage house on Brightonn Road, another gracious offer from a longtime customer. He reports that he and Lucy are adjusting well to their new abodes, even though he has had to take Lucy to sniff the former store several times to help her realize they no longer live there.
There was a benefit at the Allegheny Universalist-Unitarian church organized by long-time customers, Suzanne and Tom Roberts. Kerry was touched that they did the performance because they personally valued the shop. Kerry took a rose to everyone who attended. The pastor and his partner are also frequent customers. This was a powerful moment for him as Kerry had left a little Greek decorative column at the church from a previous event and they dug it out to bring to him during the concert as a symbol that rebuilding was going to happen. It was something whole and beautiful left from the shop.
A florist from Florida sent him a box of florist supplies such as wire and other things. His high school class sent him a laptop via Fedex and put a substantial donation directly into his bank account. They've kept in touch over the years and have been like his family. He attributes the generosity to karma because anytime a class member has lost someone, he always took care of the flowers.
He was working in the Parador ballroom and people were literally banging at the doors with boxes of vases and donations of clothing (better than his original clothing, he chuckles, mentioning a lovely cashmere scarf someone passed along). He thinks that people seeing him getting right back to work gave them faith in the ongoing revitalization of their neighborhood.
“I've learned the absolute joy of saying 'thank you'” he speaks. “This experience has taught me how to accept things with grace and dignity” He learned that his way to pay people back was to reopen and that people in the community needed him to reopen to fill the hole in their lives when the store was lost.
In an interesting analogy, Kerry acknowledges that most people don't get to see how much people care about them in their lifetime – like seeing their own wake. People repeatedly ask him about his faithful companion, Lucy. While we talk, the mail carrier comes in and goes right to the treat jar to share a moment with Lucy. She also noticed the red bustier vases on display in the counter that I think would be a great gift for Ledcat. Ssshhh.
Fast forward six weeks. The new store is open for business. The space is about 1/3 larger than his original store, but the workroom in back is substantially larger. He still lacks a cooler for the flowers, but acknowledges that he managed for six months without one in his original space and still got corporate business. For now, the back room is plenty cool and he just ushers customers back to select their own fresh flowers. He also compensates by making more frequent trips to pick up fresh flowers during the week. He has been able to make some nice changes like adding a small seating area which allows for folks to visit a bit more comfortably, but also gives some privacy for families who want to look through his books as they make decisions for momentous occasions. He is restocking his “signature” gift items, including the Swiss truffle chocolates he is expecting this week.
Kerry hasn't been able to return to the shop or his apartment to reclaim most of his personal items. The fireman helped him recover a few items. His apartment is salvageable, but he's waiting permission from the owners to go in and sort through. The source of the fire has been determined electrical arc fire due to an “Act of God” that probably began with a deteriorating wire.
He hopes the owners of the property, also the owners of the Modern Cafe, will permit him to return to his apartment to sift through the literal ashes and claim whatever remnants of his life are possible to retrieve. Having lost all of his family members save his sister, Kerry wistfully notes that even a fragment of a memory is better than nothing.
The Northside Leadership Conference has collected set up a fire relief fund for all three business owners. Kerry hasn't yet tapped into it this funding. He feels a sense of obligation to spend the donations wisely. He is looking around for a cooler and would love someone to call him if they know of a gently used cooler available for purchase. When discussing the fund, Kerry pointedly mentions the other neighborhood fire which destroyed an apartment building in Deutschtown, displacing 13 people including children. His heart breaks for the children and he made his own contribution to that relief fund (see link above).
The best thing people can do to help at this point is to support the businesses. Order flowers. Get your hair done. Support the Modern Cafe deli. Kerry is back at full capacity to accept flower orders.
Kerry notes that business is going reasonably well in spite of the recession. In the flower business, people are buying bouquets instead of a dozen roses, but flower occasions (funerals, weddings, birthdays) continue along so the demand remains consistent, if on a more modest budget. He believes that florists should not compete with $9.95 bouquets from grocery store and box chain stores, but instead remain associated with the big occasions that mark passages in life such as weddings, anniversaries and funerals. He also knows from experience that people walking buy will see the “beauty” and stop in to pick up some flowers.
One “cool thing” he gained from this experience is the realization that he can recycle vases so that's a way to also contribute to his ongoing commitment to go green. K.S. Kennedy has a long-time practice of offering fair trade flowers including roses. He's now got a “bring in your vase for a refill” policy and is contemplating a special Earth Day project. Along with neighbors, Allegheny General Hospital donated dozens of vases, an effort spearheaded by the sister of the owner of the Parador Inn who is a hospital employee.
Kerry refuses to sit and dwell on what was lost, but focuses instead on what he gained from this experience.
Kerry has lost most of his family members so he is a true believer in telling people you love them everyday, not just on special occasions or most especially when they've passed. He feels very lucky knowing that he's made a difference in people's lives.
After asking about himself and Lucy, Kerry chuckles that most people asked about the Cowher chair. Kerry is a big fan of Bill Cowher. He was upset when Cowher retired and signed up for the family's house auction. Kerry got his desk chair which he affectionately dubs “the Cowher chair” and it represents so much to him. He even appreciated the dog hair that came with it! He also acquired a pair of his sun glasses. It became a local destination. Folks came in and get their picture taken sitting in it. Kerry took it upstairs two weeks before the fire and thus it avoided the fate of his shop. When he returned to his apartment and saw the sunglasses and the chair still relatively intact it was like a phoenix had risen and what was important to him survived.
The one thing he learned is to have renter's insurance for his residence and contents insurance for his store so he won't face the same devastation if it ever happened. He also realizes that he'll probably always fear another fire, but cannot let that fear interfere with life.
Kerry is reluctant to identify any needs he has at this point. So perhaps the gift we can give him at this point is to say thank you to him for being part of the heart of the Northside community. He feels like people have invested in the \new store, that it is bigger than K.S. Kennedy's individual business but now the Northside's floral shop.
I'll take the grand leap of suggesting how the community can continue to support Kerry:
– Assist him with getting access to his apartment so he can retrieve his personal belongings. They have meaning to him regardless of their condition and it is somewhat cruel to keep him out when he is persevering in rebuilding his business.
– Find the man a cooler. Ask around. Check out Craig's List.
– Join Kerry's new Facebook Page
– Think flowers when you need a little something to take for a hostess gift or some such small need. Every $10 or $20 you spend is $10 or $20 toward keeping this heartful business firmly nestled in the Northside.
– Keep paying it forward. Kerry emphatically believes that he should continue to repay his supporters by paying it forward. He especially urges people to donate to the Deutschtown relief fund.