Fire means closing the book on the Nature Nook


November 29, 1999|By Sally Voris | Sally Voris,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JAN AND DON Randle have decided to close a 15-year chapter of their lives: their store, the Nature Nook, which was badly damaged in the fire on historic Main Street in Ellicott City on Nov. 9.

"[It was] perfect while it lasted. We were just so happy," said Jan.

Her husband believes they could not find a better location for their store, less than a block from B&O Railroad Station Museum.

As a native of Johnstown, Pa., Jan had experienced floods, and she worried about them in Ellicott City because it's in a flood plain, her husband said. "[But she] never even thought about a fire."

Jan, 74, is ready to do other things. "The Nature Nook is dead," she said. "It's us and it's not there anymore. There's nobody who could do it like we did."

With a loyal staff that became like family, the Randles specialized in sales of nature books, while also selling Beanie Babies and other toys and stuffed animals.

"We had a lot of out-of-print books and the last copies of some books, including `Herbaceous Plants of Maryland' and `Woody Plants of Maryland,' " said Jan. "They are ashes now."

"We used to call it the hot-stove shop," said Don, 69. People came in, asked questions and visited. Some kids called regularly to talk; others came in when they were doing school projects.

The Randles opened the Nature Nook after Don retired. Jan had operated a bookstore for the Howard County Bird Club, formally the Howard County Branch of the Maryland Ornithological Society, as a volunteer out of her home.

Jan wanted to open a bookstore. Her friends discouraged her because of the high failure rate of bookstores. She replied that if she did not try it, she would be a failure. She rented 200 feet of space at Tiber Place on Main Street. The business grew, and 12 years ago, the Nature Nook moved to its current location.

The Randles hired a full-time manager, Marci Krishnamoorthy, and several part-time employees: Michele Wright, Eric McCarty and Maggie Ramage. "We all knew the books," said Jan.

"Somebody knew the answer or we could tell the person where they could get the answer," said Don.

The store had a tremendous following, he said. Customers from Tibet and New Mexico visited the store on trips to Washington.

The fire's timing compounded the couple's loss.

"We just regret not having Christmas," Jan said. "We had a whole bunch of different things coming in."

Marci was logging an order when the fire started.

A plywood wall has been erected in front of the burned buildings on Main Street. Two small windows allow passers-by to see the broken storefront windows, falling wood and shelves and decorations barely recognizable from extensive water and smoke damage.

A single chrysanthemum was placed on the sill of one of the two windows of the plywood wall. A simple sign announced that Rugs to Riches will be reopening in February at 8307 Main St.

Fernand Tersiguel held a fund-raiser for victims of the fire last Monday at Tersiguel's, his Main Street restaurant; it raised more than $40,000, he said.

He had been burned out in 1984, when a Main Street fire destroyed six businesses. He reopened in Baltimore, then returned to Ellicott City after five years.

"Love and hate are so close," Tersiguel said, recalling another victim of the 1984 fire who never opened up shop again in Ellicott City. "Your business is like your wife or your husband."

Some people experience so much trauma that they walk away and never come back, he said. He was heartened when he heard that five of those who had been burned out have decided to stay in Ellicott City. They came to the fund-raiser Monday.

Tersiguel was impressed by those who contributed -- a man on the street gave him a $1,000, and Kathleen Wendel, 13, whose mother, Celia Wendel, owns the Ellicott City Copy Center, collected $27 for the victims of the fire.

One of the servers, Steven Antonsen Sr., brought his two children, Steven Jr., 7, and Ashley, 4. They helped him serve desserts. He took them down to see the fire-damaged area. "They saw the Beanie Babies that had been burned, and then they understood why I was working on my day off," he said.

The home of his best friend had burned in a fire, Antonsen said, and the family had lived in a motel for three months while their home was restored.

He has thought about what would be most important for him to save.

"I'd go back in for the pictures," he said. "It's the only thing you can't replace."

When Jan and Don Randle went back into their shop, they carried out the stuffed toy pig that sat in the store window and that Maggie had decorated once a week, and a Christmas troll, which had been Jan's. Both were damaged.

The Randles also found one book, a classic: "The Precious Present" by Spencer Johnson, published in 1981. The story features a little boy who struggles to understand an old man's words: "The precious present/ is not something that/ someone gives you./ It is a gift that/ you give yourself."


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