After the fire, a magic carpet ride

Furnishings: Ellicott City's eclectic Rugs to Riches store, burned out last November, reopens in a former auto showroom.

March 12, 2000|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

Leslie Meilman -- entrepreneur, survivor, purveyor of stylish home furnishings -- stands amazed in the half-finished, 3,800-square-foot, right-on-Main-Street space in Ellicott City that will be her new store.

"I never thought I'd be here," she says.

She's right; it's something of a miracle.

Meilman was in Washington late last year, picking up an order for a customer, when her cell phone rang. It was one of her store staff members, who said, "Get back here as fast as you can, your store is on fire."

"At first you don't believe it," Meilman said, revisiting the thoughts she had as she raced up I-95. "You think, oh, it's just a little thing. A corner maybe."

But it was not a little thing. Meilman's shop, Rugs to Riches, a staple on Main Street since October 1992, was one of five businesses destroyed in the six-alarm fire Nov. 9 that ravaged the historic shopping district of the quaint Howard County town.

Meilman battled her way into town, where more than 100 firefighters struggled for hours to put out the blaze. She couldn't get near her store, but she could see flames and smoke billowing, and she knew it was bad.

"My sales staff were there, and some people were crying," she recalls. "I stayed until 8 p.m., but the fire wasn't out until later. When I came back the next morning, there was nothing."

Her customers were dismayed. "Some of us took a real hit," says designer Hal Happersett of Interior Decisions, also on Main Street. "I use her as a major source, for accessories in particular. Some people have one or two things from her shop, and some people have a whole houseful."

Happersett, who shops as far away as Richmond and Philadelphia for his clients, says Meilman's shop is "one of a kind."

"The shop has wonderful things that have a sense of classicism, good bones, but they're not pretentious," he says. "The look is hand-hewn, but not primitive."

When the shop burned, Happersett says he was distraught at losing such an important source.

But Meilman is not one to miss a blessing, no matter how ugly the disguise it comes in.

Within days, she had located second-floor office space and room for a bit of a showroom in the Shops at Ellicott Mills, an antiques mall just up the street from her burned-out store. And she had secured the entire front of the first floor, a former auto showroom, as her new retail space.

"There was nothing to do but get up and start working again," she says.

Lisa DeVries, the property manager who found the space for her, calls Meilman "an amazing woman." The two had been discussing a move before the tragedy, but the fire "kind of pushed her out of the nest."

The new shop -- still called Rugs to Riches, though it might well be renamed Ashes to Rugs to Riches -- opened officially yesterday. It is the first of those devastated in the fire to reappear. Some businesses won't be back; the owners of the Nature Nook, for instance, are not reopening. A couple of the businesses hope to return to their former locations, though restrictions on building in the historic town could become an issue. (When another six-alarm fire damaged businesses in the historic district of Annapolis in 1997, preservationists fought for months against the owner's plan to raze the structure. Before the argument could be settled, the building was damaged further in a storm and had to be torn down for public safety reasons.)

But Meilman couldn't wait for arguments to conclude and the buildings to go up. "It would have been a year," she says, and she didn't feel she could be out of business that long.

Instead, she says, "It's been an interesting four months."

DeVries, for one, is awed at the quickness of the turnaround. "Leslie has amazing stamina. And she's maintained this remarkably calm demeanor -- I'd be screaming at everyone in sight."

The new space is more than twice the size of the shop that burned, and its former incarnation as a display area for cars means it has big windows and wide open spaces. Meilman wants to keep the floor plan "flexible," to best display the beds, dining tables and chairs, family rooms, lighting fixtures, decorative objects and, of course, rugs she will be carrying.

"I wanted the feel of a warehouse or loft space," she says. There are a few structural hints: a free-standing wall with an arched window (guarded at the moment by faux topiaries in urns); a space called "the White Room," a slightly raised square defined by columns; and the 18-foot counter, shaped like an elongated C.

And then there is the front entrance on Main Street, with its moss-covered walls and giant chandelier made of bound and unbound twigs. The whole thing looks as if an inventive squirrel with nothing better to do has whipped up a fantasy fixture for "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It manages to be both charming and eerie at the same time.

While most of Meilman's objects exhibit graceful, even stately, style, she does love the the unexpected. Meilman wants to keep some surprises to herself, but it's clear the shop will have an architectural element that was missing before, and she is clearly moving into offering total design. For this shop, it seems, "riches" are going to dominate "rugs."

If you go:

Rugs to Riches

8307 Main St.

Ellicott City

410-750-8767

Look for an eclectic mix of elegant and unusual objects, from antique sofas to rugs, lighting fixtures, home accessories and other decorative items.

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