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Like the phoenix, Obelisk Shoppe aims to rise out of the ashes of the "Great Hillcrest Fire"

SAN DIEGO – Six months after a three-alarm fire nearly destroyed a historical building in the heart of Hillcrest -- home to Obelisk Shoppe, Torreon Importers and 14 residential units -- prospects look bright for the storefront tenants to resume operations sometime in 2012, but exactly when remains unclear.

On the afternoon of July 6, 2011, more than 100 firefighters responded to the blaze, which some have dubbed the "Great Hillcrest Fire," created massive clouds of smoke and caused parts of University Avenue to be closed to traffic for nearly 24 hours.

The fire, which was believed to be set off by roofers working on a project in an adjacent building, severely damaged the 100-year-old structure and caused additional damage to the storefronts on both sides of it.

Community members were shocked by the extent of the damage. Fundraisers were planned to help the displaced residents, and three businesses – Obelisk, Torreon and Buonnisimo 2 – have remain closed since the blaze. The storefront that once housed Pomegranate Home was already vacant, but suffered some damage from the massive amounts of water that were needed to extinguish the fire.

After weeks of safety inspections by city and insurance crews, work on the buildings has progressed but various issues have caused delays on reconstruction.

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News sat down with Brett Serwalt, owner of Obelisk Shoppe, to find out what his plans are for the store, which has been a LGBT community and Hillcrest landmark since 1992.

“I’ve been in a holding pattern since the fire,” said Serwalt, who purchased the store from its original owners in 2010. “While I own Obelisk the business, I’m just a tenant of the building, so I am not privy to all of the dealings with the permits and construction.”

Serwalt said that after meeting with the building’s owner and contractor, he believes it will be about four months from now until the building is ready to be occupied.

“That is, if everything goes absolutely perfect,” Serwalt said, noting that inclement weather, permit and insurance issues, and other unexpected complications could push things back.

Traditionally, the week surrounding the annual San Diego LGBT Pride celebration in July has been the busiest time of the year for Obelisk, with the influx of people who come to the area looking for LGBT merchandise during that time.

Serwalt said he hopes to open the store a month or two in advance of the 2012 pride celebration, to be held July 20-22, so that he can drive business to the store with grand reopening celebration and then see another spike in traffic during Pride.

He fears, though, that the store’s opening may be timed right around Pride, which he said would not be ideal.

“Having a grand opening during Pride is like having a birthday on Christmas,” Serwalt said, jokingly.

Obstacles to rebuilding a historical building

The building’s owner has been overwhelmed tending to the project’s many details, Serwalt said, as she has a full-time job outside of her landlord duties. “She doesn’t have a lot information either,” he said. “There are lots of conflicting stories and questions about various requirements, leaving her at the mercy of the city, contractors, the insurance company and other stakeholders, who all say different things.”

Serwalt was told that the building's age is a big factor in the rebuilding delays, as there are questions about whether the structure needs to be brought up to comply with certain codes, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act and various fire codes.

Serwalt said the building’s owner is also changing the floor plan of the building, reducing the number of units on the upper levels.

“Prior to the fire, the building included Obelisk and Torreon on the ground level, with 12 residential units and a storage space for Obelisk on the second and third floors,” Serwalt said.

Serwalt said that once reconstructed, the building will remain the same on the ground level and will include just five units on the second floor – each will be one bedroom/one bathroom – with one large unit on the third floor. The third-floor unit will be over the Torreon side of the building, with a large sun deck extending over the Obelisk side.

As for Torreon Importers, Serwalt said its owner wants to return to his space as well, as he has worked out of the same location for 18 years.

Staying put, or moving on?

When asked if he would consider reopening Obelisk in a different location if things don’t work out as planned at the original location, Serwalt said that the idea is not out of the question.

“All options are on the table right now,” Serwalt said. “However, I consider the original location to be essential for Obelisk. It is between two nightclubs on a heavily foot-trafficked stretch, and there is a history in that location. It is the right size and space for the shop.

“Sure, we could open up shop somewhere else, but [the original location] is where we most want to be.”

Serwalt also noted that the 1000 block of University Avenue will be completely revived in a year’s time.

“The block will have a completely new feel,” Serwalt said, noting that Pita Jungle and other new businesses will open in the building next to Rich’s nightclub, and Torreon, Obelisk and Buonissimo 2 will also be reopening.

Changes are in the works for Obelisk

The fire, which happened just one week before San Diego’s LGBT Pride celebrations kicked off, was a major blow for Serwalt’s business.

Since taking over the business 18 months prior to the fire, Serwalt had been slowly changing the look, feel and product offerings of the store. In a January 2010 interview with The BottomLine Magazine, Serwalt said:

“We’re carrying watches now -- not just the rainbow watches people remember from the past, but really cool, funky, trendy accessory watches you won’t find at the mall. We also recently began carrying two lines of men’s grooming products: Zirh and Anthony for men. Until now people had to travel to Fashion Valley to purchase them, but I’m hoping they’ll now instead begin coming here and keeping the money in Hillcrest.

This was all part of a plan to diversity the store’s offerings, especially as brick-and-mortar bookstores become more difficult to sustain with many people now using online booksellers to purchase books, or using electronic readers such as the Kindle.

Serwalt noted that many book vendors who specialized in gay and lesbian titles have gone out of business. Many authors, particularly those who are not as well read, have resorted to other means to get their books published including “print on demand” services, which are better suited for online booksellers.

Under Serwalt, the store was rebranded as “Obelisk Shoppe,” losing the word “bookstore” from its title.

“When we reopen, books will have even less of a presence than they did before, with a stronger emphasis on gifts,” Serwalt said.

Another change that customers will notice when the store reopens is that the adult-products section will be eliminated.

“I actually decided before the fire happened that there would a multi-year phase-out of the adult portion of the business,” he said. “It was a business I was not interested in and I wanted to move the brand in a more upscale direction.”

The fire, Serwalt said, made the decision to phase out the section easier.

“Besides, the porn industry is changing, too, shifting to more online sales anyways,” Serwalt said. “I’m happy to cede this part of my business to other stores in the area.”

Serwalt has been working hard to plan the “new” store in a way that makes it more appealing to customers. It will retain its name and the same logo, but will have a new look and feel inside.

The store will sell more gift items, exclusive brands and apparel, but retain many favorites like greeting cards, calendars, gay magazines and some books.

“There will be a lot of similarity but we will be pumping up the new things that we were previously slowly rolling out,” Serwalt said.

When the store reopens, Serwalt will bring back one of his longtime employees, and potentially have openings for other part time help. He said that at the time of the fire, he had five employees but three of them were in the process of moving on to full-time jobs, and a fourth was a new hire who had not started yet. His longtime employee’s salary has been taken care of during the closure through insurance payouts.

“Luckily, none of my well-being was severely impacted by the fire,” Serwalt said.

Obelisk’s history certainly is close to the hearts of many San Diegans. Since the fire, community members frequently post messages of encouragement on Obelisk’s Facebook page, and Serwalt says that calls continue to come in.

“I had the store’s phone number routed to my home phone to take calls while we are closed and I’m shocked by the number of calls I get from people asking where they can get items they would have previously gotten at Obelisk.”

SDGLN will continue to report on building developments and inform readers when the store will reopen. For more information, click HERE.

The photos at the left, taken by SD PIX photographer Jim Winsor, show the historical building is now in the rebuilding phase after major fire damage.