Knot on Main Street vendor Carla Gillis stared in disbelief last month as the building where the antique mall was located went up in flames.
Gillis, like many of the other 100 vendors who rented spaces at the consignment mall for antiques and collectibles dealers, considered the Dunedin store a second home.
There were customers who brought in their children, grandchildren and out-of-town friends to visit. There were women who dressed up in their best hats and earrings to peruse the latest items.
It was a place where everybody — customers and dealers — knew each other's names.
So a month later, former Knot vendors say they are delighted to have found a renewed sense of camaraderie through the grand opening of Antiques & Uniques, a Palm Harbor consignment store run by two former Knot dealers.
So far, 12 of Antiques & Uniques' 15 vendors are former Knot dealers. And five more are on the waiting list.
The Knot "was like the Cheers of Dunedin. It's like a family and, for many customers, it was a home away from home," said Gillis, 58, of Palm Harbor. "The timing on (Antiques & Uniques) opening is wonderful because it's given us another outlet."
Store owners Kym Eggers and Laura Cheek say their shop's July 5 opening was a "bittersweet" moment.
The women are ex-Knot vendors who had decided before the fire to pursue a years-old dream of starting their own business. The Knot "was the first time we'd seen a co-op mall and we loved the idea," so they decided to pursue the same business model, said Eggers, 46, of Crystal Beach.
The business partners had promised not to solicit any of the Knot's dealers for their new business. But after the June 8 fire, they said, Barbara O'Connell, who owns the Knot with her husband Bob, asked Eggers and Cheek to take in vendors while they rebuild.
Eggers and Cheek say inventory in a booth they were still renting at the Knot also was reduced to ashes in the June 8 fire. Many Knot vendors say their belongings weren't insured.
"It was so shocking and surreal," Cheek, 48, of Clearwater said of the blaze. "It affected a lot of people ... A lot of people lost everything."
Standing inside the gutted building this week, Bob O'Connell didn't seem to notice the faint smoky smell as he directed construction workers.
The O'Connells have been working early mornings, evenings, weekends and even the Fourth of July holiday in hopes of reopening at least the south side of the store by the winter tourist season.
They've torn out the water-logged carpets, pressure washed the soot-stained walls and used bulldozers to pull out piles of debris.
But much more work lies ahead. There's no roof covering the intermittent sections of wall that remain standing on the north side of the building, where firefighters said the fire began above the ceiling grid.
Dunedin fire investigators last month determined the fire was electrical in nature and estimated the damage at $1 million. The O'Connells said they're waiting for the green light from the city and their insurance company to obtain permits to begin rebuilding.
"It's not looking great yet," Bob said of the store. "But when they buff the floors and clean it up, it'll start to look realistic."
Until then, former vendors who are currently housed at Antiques & Uniques say they are eagerly awaiting the Knot's reopening and will sell at both locations.
Gillis, an interior decorator who sold items at the Knot for four years, was one of two workers manning the cash registers there when "a faint wisp of smoke, like someone exhaling from a cigarette," began wafting from the ceiling.
She estimates she lost $3,000 to $5,000 worth of uninsured items.
But Gillis had a three-car garage full of furniture, rugs, floral arrangements and other wares that she currently has on display at Antiques & Uniques.
On June 8, vendor Kent "Mac" McElheny said he nearly lost his lunch as he walked five minutes from his home up the Pinellas Trail only to discover that Knot on Main Street was engulfed in flames.
A month later, the 62-year-old Dunedin geologist said he still finds it too hard to do an official tally of what was destroyed. But he estimates he lost a "few thousand dollars" worth of guitars, ukeleles, banjos and other items in the blaze.
While he'd thought about buying insurance in the past and "just never got around to it," he's "seriously" thinking about insurance now. But even more so, McElheny is thinking about the day when the Knot opens its doors again.
"I have a soft spot in my heart for the Knot," he said. "So when they reopen, I'll go back."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.