Almost a year to day after a fire destroyed what Good Morning, America called “the nation’s oldest bridal salon,” reopens this week in a new, fire-safe storefront just blocks away from where the former store stood on 95th Street.
For everything the fire burned—more than $6 million in wedding gowns were lost—the resolve of the salon’s third-generation owner, Ronia Ghusein, wasn't destroyed.
Since watching her family’s dream burn to the ground in November 2010, Ronia kept the bridal salon’s 25 employees working, including seamstresses who had been with the salon since her parents relocated the store from Chicago to Oak Lawn in 1982.
She plans to add five more positions in the new store.
in the midst of the nation’s worst economy in 80 years wasn’t bad enough, watching the old store burn down was like losing a childhood home. Ronia, 32, was raised in the store.
“My parents had my playpen set up in the alterations department,” she said. “When I was old enough to sit at the table I made buttons. All of my Halloween costumes were made from pieces of wedding gowns.”
"It just burned so fast. The wedding gowns were like gasoline."
For Ronia, Nov. 17, 2010 is a day that will live in personal infamy. She had just sat down at her desk around 2:30 on an overcast Wednesday afternoon to eat lunch—a Jimmy John’s sub—
“I thought it was a power surge,” she said. “I’m hearing rumbling in the attic. I thought it was thunder.”
At the same moment, the lights in the alterations department went dark. She looked up and saw “a waterfall of white smoke” pouring out between the wall and the ceiling.
“I ran out into the store and half of it had filled with white smoke,” Ronia said. “I screamed for everyone to get out of the store.”
As her employees attempted to retrieve jackets and purses, Ronia told them to leave their things for later.
“I’m not smelling anything burning,” she said. “The last thing you think of is a fire.”
Taking refuge with her seamstresses and saleswomen in the parking lot behind the bridal salon, Ronia called her parents, Sam and Nancy Ghusein.
“I told my father that the store was on fire. My mother grabbed the phone and said, ‘Can’t you go in and grab some dresses?’
“I said, ‘You don’t understand. The store is on fire,’” Ronia recalled.
Before the fire was struck, traffic would be shut down during rush hour on one of the nation’s busiest thoroughfares. Numb and lifeless, Ronia would not leave the parking lot until the business that her grandmother, Eva Sweis, began in 1964 burned down to a smoldering wreck.
"It just burned so fast," Ronia said. "The wedding gowns were like gasoline."
‘Thank God for smartphones’
Throughout the night, Ronia fielded phone calls from frantic brides. She and her parents set up a hotline number. There was no way to answer the calls at the business number her parents had since 1982 because the landline had melted in the fire.
Ronia got busy making lists of who needed dresses. In addition to the six weddings set to take place that weekend, 40 other gowns slated for December weddings were lost in the fire.
Not knowing what to do with herself the next morning, she returned to the store. The entire parking lot was filled with media trucks and scared brides wanting to know if their gowns had burned in the fire.
“One bride in particular, Jessica, was there with her mother,” Ronia recalled. “Her mom is looking at me crying while I’m doing a media interview.”
Ronia stopped the interview. The mother of the bride said her daughter’s wedding was that weekend.
“Thank God for smartphones,” Ronia laughed. “We went to the back seat of my car. Her daughter didn’t have the style number for her dress, but I found a picture of it on my cell phone.”
The vendor had one dress left in the bride’s chosen color but four sizes too big.
“The manufacturer shipped the dress overnight,” Ghusein said. "We took her to the seamstress’s house, had the gown altered to fit her and she had her wedding the next day.
Ronia and her staff were able to replace four of the dresses for the six weddings that weekend, “but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The other two were high ticket dresses that cost between $5,000 and $6,000.”
Tony Calderone, owner of Palermo's Restaurant, opened his back room to his long-time business neighbors. He had also brought chairs, coats and thermoses of coffee out to the parking lot where the Ghuseins and their staff stood watching the bridal salon burn down.
Ronia received more than 5,000 emails from vendors, manufacturers and well-wishers from around the country, offering to ship wedding gowns to make up for the ones lost in the fire.
“I had this older gentleman whose five daughters bought their gowns from us,” Ronia said. “The man came in with a walking cane and his daughters carrying their dresses. It was heartwarming.”
A New Beginning
Ronia wouldn’t say how much the total loss was—only that the bridal salon was underinsured. Over 6,000 dresses—the average cost of each about $1,000—were lost. The bridal salon also lost all of its computers files. A few weeks before the fire, Sam suggested that they look into backing up the store’s computer data offsite.
The Oak Lawn Fire Department determined that it started in the building’s attic and may have smoldered undetected for days in the electric system before igniting.
Ghusein completed orders booked into 2011. She went on buying trips to Europe so that Eva’s wouldn’t lose its exclusivity with designers.
She met with architects and leased space in a newly constructed storefront and rebuilt the bridal salon from the ground up.
The new Eva’s features an open floor plan with neutral gray walls, spacious fitting rooms and alterations department—and a sprinkler system.
“I wanted the new store to be more streamlined and flow better,” Ghusein said. “Buying a wedding gown is a happy time. Women like to be seen by other brides. I didn’t want a lot of doors.”
One year later, she’s still amazed by the compassion shown to her family by the local business community, the salon’s vendors, and complete strangers who physically shipped dresses from across the county.
“I’m having a ball,” Ghusein said. “Everything just feels great. There is a kick in my step. I can’t wait for 2012.”