A fire has burned a hole in Denton's heart.
In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, a raging four-alarm fire consumed the Downtown Mini Mall on the east side of the Denton Square at 108 N. Locust Street. Nobody was injured, but nearby businesses and apartments suffered heavy smoke and water damage from the blaze.
The cause of the fire was still unknown as of Tuesday evening, fire department spokesman Kenneth Hedges said. Firefighters initially arrived on the scene about 3 a.m. as heavy smoke billowed from the building. They wrestled with the flames until about 6:30 a.m. and couldn't enter the building until about three hours later. By then, it was only a shell of charred debris.
Since 1980, dozens of vendors have rented booths inside the mini mall and sold anything from medieval swords to vintage clothes to furniture. It was a beloved space filled with random treasures.
The owner of the business and the property, 76-year-old Denton resident Leo Will, spent every working day in the shop.
"We've done this for 38 years, and it's like losing a family member," he said. "I'm devastated. I don't know what to say."
Will said all of his children and grandchildren have worked at the mini mall at one point or another. Among the roughly 40 vendors who were selling merchandise inside the store, several had been there since it opened, he said.
"When we started this, the Square was just about dried up," he said. "That was back in 1980. And we kind of gave the Square new life as time went on."
Will owns an identical business, Downtown Mini Mall II, also on the east side of the Square. Although that building and other nearby business' didn't catch fire, the smoke and water damage forced them to close for the day.
It's unclear how long those businesses will need to recover. A co-owner of La Di Da boutique, which sits directly adjacent to the mini mall, said their business is a "total loss."
"While the mini mall is an iconic Denton foundation, there's a lot of other people that were affected in this fire," co-owner Travis Wiest said.
The fire displaced residents in eight apartment units above La Di Da and the neighboring business Shop the Barn. Nick Miller, vice president of property owner The Martino Group, expected residents in all but three units to return on Tuesday, he said.
"And I expect the other three would be ready for a return [Wednesday]," Miller said.
The massive fire drew emergency responders from multiple surrounding agencies, including Lake Cities, Flower Mound, Highland Village, Aubrey and Lewisville. Every firefighter in Denton was on the scene as more than 70 fire personnel tended to the blaze. At one point, firefighters were stationed on four ladders above the fire, dumping about 4,000 gallons of water per minute, according to Hedges.
He said two supporting fire walls on each side of the mini mall prevented the flames from spreading to other businesses. Fire walls typically are made of concrete or brick, he said.
Authorities entered the structure about 9:30 a.m. as they continued to identify hot spots among the wreckage.
"We may not be able to determine the cause due to the extent of the damage," Hedges said.
Locust and Austin streets remained closed between Hickory and Oak streets for most of the day Tuesday. One lane of Locust Street opened in the evening about 5 p.m., city spokeswoman Jessica Rogers said.
Firefighters shut down the electricity for safety reasons while they battled the fire. Power was restored about 3 p.m. All the businesses on the east side of the Square remained closed throughout the day.
Julie Glover, the Denton economic development program administrator, said she's going to explore funding options for the 87-year-old mini mall building. She's thinking about applying for historic preservation grants, among other options.
"We'll get creative and try to do everything we can," she said.
Glover, who oversees downtown redevelopment and historic preservation of the area, also advised against making large donations to Will this early in the process.
"If people can be patient and let the owner assess what he wants to do and needs to do, that would be great," she said. "We can't make any quick decision in these first 24 hours or so."
Will said he had fire insurance for the business, and the company was on the scene Tuesday. Will did not, however, have insurance for the merchandise inside, he said.
"For all of my vendors, it's going to be a total loss," he said.
Cathy Allcorn was one the antique and vintage dealers who had booths inside the mini mall. She struggled to estimate how much she lost in inventory from her five booths.
"I had thousands of vintage records, postcards and books," Allcorn said. "Upstairs, I had 1970s wedding dresses on display."
She had an antique lamp and collectible figurines in one small area that were priced at $500 each.
"And that was just in about 2 square feet," Allcorn said.
She got started in the business after her parents died and she was settling their estate. Her parents had many treasures, but she couldn't keep them all. Over time, her business grew because so many other people value vintage items, too.
"When you went in there, you saw your childhood, or your grandma's kitchen, or your mom's," Allcorn said.
She expects other dealers are like her and have garages or storage units with more inventory, though that won't cover investments they have made in their treasure hunts over the years.
"People there worked hard," Allcorn said. "Nobody made a fortune, but I counted on that little bit of extra money."
She's grateful no one was badly hurt in the fire — stuff is stuff, she said — but she also wonders how people will cope with the loss of a great meeting place.
Families shopped together, and college students brought their parents in on visiting weekends. Many of the dealers came in to work for a few hours and then walked to a place nearby to share a drink and visit.
"I asked my son, 'Where will I meet them now?'" Allcorn said. "I will miss the iconic statement that crazy store was."
Glen Farris, president of Denton's Main Street Association, was confident the small business community would band together. The mini mall, he said, spoke to the city's culture.
"Where else in the world can you walk out of a shop with a sword and a guitar and a record?" he said.
For other Denton residents, the fire was reminiscent of the 1994 fire that destroyed three buildings on the southwest corner of the Square.
Katy McBride Reynolds said her father's pawn shop, Glen's Music and Pawn, was one of the buildings destroyed in that fire. Hearing the news about the mini mall brought back memories.
"I still remember very much the way that fire smelled and the devastation it had on Elm Street, and I'm glad that this fire was able to be contained to one building," she said.
"Denton has a really tight-knit community," she added, "And we're able to overcome all sorts of things. And this business will rebuild as we did."
JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882.
Before the building at 120 N. Locust St. was home to the Downtown Mini Mall, it housed both five-and-dime and department stores over the years. Photos courtesy of the Denton County Office of History and Culture.
Footage from KXAS-TV (NBC5):
FEATURED PHOTO: This image taken from video by Dennis Holmes of KXAS-TV (NBC5) shows Denton firefighters shooting water from ladder trucks on Austin Street to battle a four-alarm blaze early Tuesday morning at the Downtown Mini Mall on the east side of the Denton Square. This image was taken from East Hickory Street looking northwest toward the back of the building. NBC5/Dennis Holmes