October 5, 2020

Lessons from the Fire that Temporarily Closed Trident Booksellers and Cafe

Courtney Flynn is the manager of Trident Booksellers and Café, the legendary bookshop that has been a Newbury Street landmark since Courtney’s parents opened the shop in 1984. Late on the night of February 28, 2018, a fire blazed through Trident’s second floor, leading to extensive fire and water damage that forced Courtney to close for more than six months.

When she needed help with the insurance claims process, Courtney turned to SMW. In a recent sit-down discussion with SMW, Courtney shared her thoughts and recollections, and offers other business owners some pointed advice about how to optimize the claims process.

SMW: Tell us about when you first got the call alerting you to the fire.

COURTNEY: It was nighttime, and I was sleeping. One of our managers called me and said smoke was billowing out of the shop. My first thought was: “It’s fine.” But he was panicked, so I came down to the shop, and there were fire trucks out in front with ladders open. We still had staff there, because we stay open until midnight, so that was my primary concern. The firemen were doing their thing. When they finally extinguished the fire, the water was ankle-high on the first floor. It was everywhere.

SMW: What first steps did you take to cope with this disaster?

COURTNEY:
That very night, one of the first things I did was call SMW. Jeffrey (Winnick) came immediately. He showed up here at 3:00 am. I have to say — he looked really good, and he was ready. He was wearing slacks and a button-down. He had the cleaner with him. Honestly, it was such a comfort to have him there. A fire was nothing we had been through before; it was all so confusing. But, of course, SMW deals with this stuff every day, and provided the right support. You all knew the next steps and what to expect. First, we had to deal with getting the water out. Then we had to tackle the inventory – we’re a bookstore with gifts and cards, so there was a ton of inventory. At first, I thought I could possibly save some of it – like, “hey, these cards are still dry!” But soon it was obvious that it all had to go. Then the cleaning took place, which was managed by SMW. I was so glad I hired you!

SMW: What communications did you have with your insurance company?

COURTNEY: My insurance agent came at some point. SMW immediately advised me that this claim would not be a small, quickly resolved process. At Trident, we’re used to overcoming challenges, so we thought: no big deal. That’s our style anyway. Most businesspeople are like that, right? But SMW knew it would take a while, and you guys told me that. That applies to the challenges we’re facing during COVID as well. I read a David Chang article. He said if you close for even one day, you’re really stressing out. When that’s the threshold, and then you’re told it will take months or even a year – you can’t even conceive it.

SMW: Your claim had Improvements & Betterments; it had furniture; there was the bar; and most importantly, there was the inventory. How confident were you that the insurance company would do the right thing?

COURTNEY: Truthfully, there were moments I wasn’t sure they would do the right thing. I didn’t know what would and what would not be covered. It was both a fiscal and mental relief to have SMW’s help. There were moments when the insurance company really pushed back, and they were always questioning things. The insurance adjuster checked the inventory, and he was always poking around when he arrived on site. Our inventory is always crazy – we have so many items. The insurance company always made me feel like we were trying to get away with something.

SMW: There was perpetual inventory, which you reviewed before we submitted it to the insurance company. The insurance company then brought in a salvor to do a spot check of the most expensive items. We passed with flying colors.

COURTNEY: Right. Then it was time to start doing the repairs. The cleaners cut the walls. Luckily, we had a good contractor – Straight up Builders; they were great. We could have used this as an opportunity to change things, but we kept it mostly the same. Our goal was to reopen as quickly as possible. We had to order new fixtures, because the old ones were damaged. That process is always longer than one hopes. Then we had to deal with books and all other inventory.

SMW: What about your customers – what were they doing?

COURTNEY: Our customers gave us tons of support and so much love. People were really missing us. That sustained us. They left so many Instagram messages, and the articles on Boston.com really helped. We were nervous about losing continuity with our customers. I kept wondering: what if they move on and don’t come back? We were closed for 6 months. The area and street were changing anyway. We opened at the end of August 2018, and were soon back to normal. The next full year, 2019, was our best year ever.

SMW: Looking back at the experience, is there anything you would do differently?

COURTNEY: I would try not to stress so much. I was so nervous throughout the entire process. The way the money disbursements came from the insurance company was scary. We were paying a lot of employees, and wondering if we would run out of money. There were so many fits and starts. Ultimately, it worked out fine. We kept all our full-time employees throughout. We couldn’t keep the tipped employees. If I could have reduced my amount of stressing, I possibly could have thought about the business more innovatively. That way, I could have used the fire as an opportunity to pivot. There was time for that, but instead I was just worried. If there is a next time, I will harness the situation to make things different or better.

SMW: Would you ever go through a property loss without a public adjuster?

COURTNEY: Never. NEVER! We don’t even know how to talk to insurance companies. I can’t imagine going it alone. You hear so many horror stories about businesses that have a loss and don’t get reimbursed. I always say, ‘Have you heard of public adjusters?’

Diane Swerling

Diane Swerling

Diane Swerling is a Principal at Swerling Milton Winnick, and current Vice President of the Massachusetts Association of Public Insurance Adjusters. She has particular expertise in claims involving condominium associations and commercial policies.
If you’ve had a fire, flood or other property loss resulting in an insurance claim, and need a public insurance adjuster in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New England or anywhere in the U.S. or Caribbean, call Swerling Milton Winnick. We are the oldest and largest public adjusting firm in New England, and our team of experts will give you personalized, 24/7 attention to successfully resolve your residential or business insurance claim.