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Fire guts block of popular stores in Middle Village

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A row of five stores along Metropolitan Avenue in Middle Village was destroyed Saturday in a four-alarm fire that caused no serious injuries but deprived the community of beloved local establishments.

The fire was reported at 10:41 a.m. Saturday and brought under control less than three hours later, but not before reaching four alarms and drawing 168 firefighters to the scene, a Fire Department spokesman said.

Neighborhood streets were rendered impassable by the 39 fire vehicles that lined up as firefighters battled the blaze, which destroyed the three-story brick building at 78-08 Metropolitan Ave.

One civilian and one firefighter were brought to Jamaica Hospital with minor injuries as a result of the fire.

Building owner Maurice Penchinar of Long Island was out of town and unavailable for comment this week, but his brother said Tuesday he intends to rebuild on the property, which housed Mace’s Close-Out City, Best Chinese Food restaurant, a laundromat, the J&J candy store and Sal’s Haircutters.

Bob Vissichelli, a co-owner of the Mace’s chain, said a fire marshal at the scene told him the blaze began as an electrical fire in the basement of the laundromat.

An FDNY spokesman said the fire was on the first floor of the store and “doesn’t seem to be suspicious.”

The blaze attracted a crowd of neighbors in the tightly knit Middle Village community who watched the smoldering building from as close a vantage point as fire officials would allow.

“All of it crushed and went down,” said neighbor Susan Khweiss, 12, describing the collapse of the building’s roof.

Joan Lazar, 12, was shopping for Halloween supplies inside Mace’s when the fire broke out. She said the store’s lights flickered out one row at a time, which she assumed had been caused by lightning until smoke began pouring into the room through a grate.

“I couldn’t see, my eyes were so irritated,” she said.

Next door a worried patient who had survived the World Trade Center disaster ran into the dental office of Dr. Teodora Constantine and forced everyone to evacuate the building.

“He said, ‘I’m not going out of here without you,’” Constantine said. “He knows what smoke inhalation is and wouldn’t let me stay here.”

Two days after the fire, neighbors strolling along Metropolitan Avenue stopped to assess the damage and reflect on the loss.

Neighbors expressed particular sadness at the destruction of Mace’s, one in a chain of 17 close-out discount stores known for carrying bargains for such seasonal items as Halloween paraphernalia, Christmas presents and spring gardening supplies.

“Take a kid in there, spend $3 and you have Christmas paid for,” one woman said of Mace’s while staring in dismay as workers mounted a plywood wall around the charred remains of the building.

“What are we gonna do? No more Mace’s.” said Lisa Binder, an employee at a nearby pharmacy.

But Vissichelli offered his assurances that Mace’s would return to Middle Village — while advising anxious consumers to patronize their Eliot Avenue store in Maspeth until then.

“We’re coming back,” he said. “We’re only going to be gone for a short time, I hope.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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