Bruce Greenberg was in Paris on Oct. 4 checking out merchandise for Coplon’s, his upscale ladies’ apparel store on Forest Drive.
“We were there buying for our next season,” Greenberg said.
At about 2:30 that afternoon in Paris (about 8:30 a.m. in Columbia), he suddenly started receiving texts and emails from friends and longtime customers expressing sympathy for his loss.
“I had no idea what they were talking about,” he said. “And all of a sudden I see this text where someone sent me a picture of what they had seen of my store on CNN and it was completely under water.”
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Coplon’s was one of several dozen Columbia area stores damaged in last fall’s historic rainfall. Some of the hardest hit businesses were near Forest Drive and Trenholm Road, where Coplon’s is located.
Now, nearly seven months later, Greenberg and his employees are preparing to move back into the building at the Forest Lake Shopping Center. They will move from a temporary location at Trenholm Plaza, which is across Forest Drive from the permanent store. Coplon’s will vacate the temporary store on Saturday and reopen in the permanent location during the first week of June.
The permanent store has come a long way from what Greenberg saw in a photograph that afternoon in Paris.
“I just got sick to my stomach,” he said. “The people I was working with asked if they needed to call me an ambulance because I just looked like I was dying.”
His wife and three sons returned to the apartment they were renting. He said they cried for about six hours “because that’s all we could do.”
He made arrangements to fly to Charlotte the next morning at 6:30 a.m. He arrived in Columbia that afternoon, but roads around Coplon’s were blocked, keeping him from entering the store. When he eventually did, he realized the extent of the damage to his merchandise and the building. The combined inventory loss and physical damage totaled several million dollars, he said. The brands included Lela Rose, Jason Wu, Michael Kors and Oscar de la Renta.
Luckily, a month after the floodwaters hit, Greenberg secured the 1,600-square-foot retail space at Trenholm Plaza. That’s significantly smaller than the permanent store’s 12,000 square feet.
“We’re all getting to know each other very well here,” he said Friday with a laugh.
Greenberg is vacating the temporary space after being told by the shopping center’s owners that the upscale athletic apparel shop Lululemon Athletica is signing a long-term lease and will be moving in later this year. The center’s owners declined to comment, as did managers of the current Lululemon store on Devine Street.
The notice came just a little before Greenberg was ready to leave, but not by much. When the store opens in June, customers will see a fully stocked and restored shop.
Greenberg credits the support of his vendors, customers and even strangers for helping the store get back on its feet.
“Everyone keeps telling me they are going to throw me a party when this is all done but I tell them . . . I’m throwing all of them the biggest party ever to thank them all,” Greenberg said.
“Our loyal customers have been even more loyal than ever and people who don’t even know us have helped us and supported us from the very beginning,” he said. “We had hundreds of people tearing out sheetrock, tearing out carpeting. We lost everything – there was nothing to be salvaged.”
Greenberg remembers three volunteers in particular who helped in the store’s initial cleanout stages.
“We had a grandfather and his son and his son – three generations from Augusta, Ga., who I guess came to Columbia to help someone and they helped us and they worked for 10 hours,” Greenberg said. “I had no idea who they were. I just couldn’t believe it.”
There were a few days when Greenberg thought about throwing in the towel on the store that his family opened on Forest Drive in 1980.
“After the first 10 days of just going on empty – just cleaning out and figuring out what to do with things – I looked at my wife and said, ‘Maybe we should just give it up, sell the property and find something else’ because it was just so daunting,” Greenberg said. “I had heard of other people who owned businesses who said, ‘No, we’re not coming back.’ It did cross my mind but then I just got back on track. We love what we do and we have such nice friends and clients here.”
Forest Acres Mayor Frank Brunson said Greenberg and Coplon’s “have been a fixture in Forest Acres for years and it was certainly devastating to see something that was an icon for the city taken and beaten down. But it was not totally destroyed and Bruce has bounced back well.”
There were a few items in the store, however, that were saved from the flood, Greenberg said, including most of the fine jewelry (which was sent off for professional cleaning and treatments) and two special paintings by New York artist Tom Christopher – one of a pair of white loafers, the other of a New York cyclist coming down Seventh Avenue.
“I called him after we rescued them. One was face-down in the muck and the other was on the floor,” Greenberg said.
Christopher told Greenberg that because the paintings were oil on canvas, restoration should be possible. After cleaning them with a damp sponge, Greenberg sent the 5-by-3-foot paintings back to Christopher – at Christopher’s offering – for restretching and then had them reframed locally.
“We’ll have those hanging in the new store when we reopen,” Greenberg said.