In Hadley, Massachusetts, investigators are still searching for the cause of a Sunday night fire that in a matter of hours wiped out more than a dozen small businesses. They were housed in a strip mall along Route 9 which in some ways was an international marketplace, in a town where you might not expect it.
Thousands of cars a day drove by the mall as they travelled on Route 9, and it a couple of days after the fire, it appeared that every single one of them slowed down for a moment to look at the burnt out store fronts. Route 9 is a major road between two college towns. Many people just pass thru on their way somewhere else, but for others, the stores were a haven for computer repair, a place to get your pants hemmed, or a destination to find foods and products from around the world.
Hai Cheng is the owner of the International Trade Market, one of the stores that went up in flames.
“We carry a lot of Indian products, Indian spices, South East Asian spices, Chinese products, Vietnamese, some Cambodian, Thai, Laos. And fresh fruits when in season,” Cheng said.
Put your face close-up to the chain link fence that went up around the stores remains in the hours after the fire was put out and you’ll see some of those products. They’re somehow still standing on shelves inside Cheng’s store. Cheng bought the business almost two years ago from friends.
As a back hoe scooped up tons of charred debris, he and several other business owners watch, seeing what left of their livelihoods. Refrigerator units were visible. So were broken glasses, tables and chairs, canned goods, and what was meat and produce. While they watched from distance, several fire investigators stood inside the fenced area, looking for the cause of the blaze that for Cheng and other store owners wiped out years of savings.
“You pour everything you have had into this business,” Cheng said. “And now it’s gone. This took all that we had away in one moment.”
Cheng came to western Massachusetts as a teenager from Cambodia. He was a refugee and an orphan and was raised by a family just a few towns away. He’s spent much of his working life as a school guidance counselor in the eastern Mass. But when his wife got a job at UMASS Amherst, they returned here and are now raising their two young children in Hadley.
Cheng said running a store had a big learning curve. He said he was just starting to get the hang of it.
“I wanted to try a new area – small business which is at the heart of Americans’ life, ” he said.
Business was good and picking up, and Cheng said he had a variety of customers who were white, Asian, and African. He ran his store alongside a market owned by a Moroccan – who carried products from north Africa and Halal certified meat. On the other side, a Vietnamese take out place that sold Banh Mi sandwiches.
Banh Mi Saigon owner Chuong Son, proudly described the sandwiches he used to make here. He said they were originally inspired by the French baguette. But the Vietnamese make it in their own way.
“It started with head cheese, food that was tough to eat, basically,” Son said. “And they put that together with pate and it caught on.”
Son opened Banh Mi Saigon about a year and half ago. He’s no stranger to the food business — he was a cook at a UMASS dining hall. He came to the area from Vietnam when was seven, and it was his wife – also Vietnamese – who wanted to open the shop.
“She wanted to live the American dream and the opportunity presented itself,” he said.
Together with his family’s help, they put about $130,000 into that dream. And Son, like others including the owners of Greggory’s Pastry, Mi Tierra Mexican restaurant, and the computer store – they’re waiting to hear from their insurance companies.
It’s hard to see the place gone overnight, Son said. But after all his family already went through leaving Vietnam, this is nothing.
“We can overcome this,” Son said. “There’s people out there now that don’t have much, that’s going through much, much more heart ache than we’re going through.”
Son plans to rebuild. He may have to go elsewhere, but he’d like to find a place right here in Hadley.
Tony Maroulis, Executive Director of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, whose membership includes many Hadley businesses, says one of the surprises about Hadley is that many people see the town as dominated by Big Box stores. But Maroulis says there’s probably more small immigrant based business within Hadley, than within the rest of Hampshire County. “It’s of course a community that was built by immigrants, mostly Polish and Irish immigrants before, and now and they’ve been there for several generations. But the new demographic of Hadley is one is very diverse and one that is quite different than what we think a New England community like this would be.”
International Food market owner Hai Cheng says he’s still tallying the loss of his business, and it’s already in excess of $250,000.
“What I got from insurance, I’m not sure yet. I just hope to restart,” he said.
The former school guidance counselor says, at least that’s how he’s thinking about on this day.