A fire can be disastrous for any business owner, but when the fire strikes during the few weeks when the store's insurance is being re-negotiated, the injury is grave and rare.
For Kerry Johnson and Kacey Carlson, co-owners of Mystic Realm and 9th Path, the unfortunate coincidences were even worse. Not only did their shops burn while they had no insurance, they were literally across the street from Lawrence Fire Station No. 1, and preparing for a reopening celebration.
"I really don't like irony, and there was a lot of it in this story," Carlson said. "One of the great ironies was that I had all of my new inventory still in boxes in the new space. We had about a week-and-a-half worth of work to do before everything was up on shelves, and we were going to do a grand reopening party."
The stores were expanding into additional space in the building, and while renovation of the current space was under way, the insurance had not yet been secured. The damage, therefore, was complete.
"I am totally devastated; I have virtually no way to rebuild. I'm essentially out of work," said Carlson, a professional astrologer who has been Johnson's business partner for two years. "I have been emotionally pretty devastated, as has Kerry, and we're still really struggling with how we are going to rebuild and with what resources."
Adding to the frustration is a level of ambiguity for the two women about the specifics of the fire. Because it happened only days after the devastating Boardwalk Apartments fire, they tried to be patient with the busy firefighters, but nearly four months after the fire, which occurred Oct. 9, they had still not received a copy of the official fire department report.
"I don't know for sure about this, but there were some questionable pieces of construction," Carlson said. "From what I heard, there were some questions as to whether or not the separation points between my shop and the common area were up to code. I have to be very careful there because I don't know that for sure."
Carlson admits that she is no expert. Her curiosity stems from the irregular damage pattern in the building. The fire destroyed most of Carlson's inventory, but Johnson had recently moved her wares to an adjacent space on the same floor, and much of her merchandise survived, albeit with heavy smoke damage.
"Given the point where theoretically the fire started, it really would have affected both equally had there had been a proper separation between my shop and the hallway," said Carlson.
But the two women decided to avoid pressing an investigation.
"I just threw my hands up and said I can't go on with it. I don't think (the landlord's) insurance company would have covered anything," said Johnson, a student and practitioner of Wicca, a traditional northern-European religion, for more than a decade.
Johnson opened her original shop, the 9th Path, in February 2000, and had moved into the new space in August 2005, just weeks before the accident.
"(The store) had been my blood, sweat and tears for five years; it certainly was not a big money maker. There was a time I had to pull money out of the house," said Johnson. "They were almost something we were doing for our community, a way to pull the Wiccan community together."
Out of the broom closet
Johnson recalls that her conversion to the new religion was not without its troubles, especially for a religion that is so eccentric and secretive. Hoping to summon locals who were performing Wiccan and Pagan rituals, Johnson opened the 9th Path, which eventually became one of the two shops within Mystic Realm.
"I thought, 'Oh god, we're going to be the only witches in Lawrence,'" said Johnson, a local resident for more than 35 years. "But when we opened the shop they started calling, and what we call, 'coming out of the broom closet.'"
Not all of the visitors that the shop drew in were familiar with witchcraft, however, and some were even perplexed, expecting the shop to be more compatible with their childhood visions of witches.
"We're amused by the 'creepy witch' idea,'" Johnson said. "You don't really see any of that, you know, 'spiderwebby' and creepy and curses and stuff like that."
While some classic notions of witchcraft are little more than stereotypes, Mystic Realm's inventory - composed primarily of the tools that Wiccan rituals require - proved others true.
"The witch's main tools are her cauldron, of course; her athame, the wand, of course, being another one; the chalice. Generally you would keep a Book of Shadows, which is like a recipe book of the spell work you have done," said Johnson, quickly indexing her merchandise, much of which is now smoke-damaged. "Lots of candles. Lots of herbs and oils.
"Sometimes your tools can take you years to accumulate. Some people like me don't have that patience, so I would just buy what I could find. I noticed that there wasn't a place that sold that kind of stuff locally."
And as long as the two women are rebuilding, it is still an untapped market. Though both women plan to reopen, there is still much work to do. Good spirits, however, may be their most valuable asset.
"The magical fifth year in retail - boom - fire," said Johnson, with a hint of humor. "I guess I won't get smug about that stuff any more."