CHICAGO (CBS) — The iconic Central Camera store downtown was set ablaze in the midst of unrest in Chicago.
The owner stood with CBS 2’s Charlie De Mar that night, providing a stunning perspective and a vow to rebuild.
On Tuesday, owner Don Flesch was back with a table set up in front, and De Mar joined him.
Central Camera is now all boarded up, and there is some structural damage. But the classic neon sign overhead remains standing and lit in all its glory.
For so many years, third-generation owner Flesch, his family, and the store at 332 S. Wabash Ave. have done just the right thing. They have helped people in need without looking for anything in return.
So when Flesch needed some help himself after his store went up in flames during civil unrest downtown, people from all over made sure to be as loud as possible and thank the man behind Central Camera.
If you’ve ever wondered what true admiration and love looks like, check out the wooden boards that now seal the iconic Loop store. They are covered in sentimental messages.
“Don, you are responsible for my craft and my joy. I love you,” one message reads.
“Don, we love you,” another reads.
And there were a dozen or so laughs and helps that Flesch shared with customers and friends of the store as he came by on Tuesday.
“If there is anything we can do for you, Don,” one woman said.
On the night of Saturday, May 30, De Mar was on the scene as Central Camera was looted and burned during a night of unrest downtown.
De Mar talked with Flesch right there at the scene.
“It’s what’s going on, it’s reality, so you deal with it,” he said at the time. “It’s that simple.”
Flesch salvaged a keepsake that night.
He said he rescued the first camera his grandfather ever sold – back when the store was located around the corner at 31 E. Adams St. The camera was returned to the store in a box 30 years after the sale and had been on display in the front window ever since.
“Grandpa’s first camera that he ever sold, I was able to get that out of the window,” Flesch said at the time.
But more importantly, he wasn’t upset or mad at the looters — instead providing perspective about what’s really important, in this case, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police that led to protests downtown that day, which preceded the unrest.
“I’m not mad,” Flesch said that night. “I’m angered at what started it, which was what? Minnesota – that poor guy getting hurt and dying.”
Twenty-four days later, Flesch was reflecting on the attention he got for his remarks that night as he sat at the table for sidewalk sales Tuesday.
“So many people were happy with the way I talked or what I was signaling; what I was showing,” he said. “But I don’t care about that. I care about, that what I wanted to say,” he said.
Flesch was back at the scene, saying he what he wanted to say where he wanted to say it – in front of his shop, which was open for sidewalk business for the first time Tuesday. And he has not lost his outlook – and does not want the people who destroyed the store punished.
“I don’t want the young people who got caught up in the throe to get destroyed lives,” he said.
Flesch promised to rebuild the night he talked to De Mar as his shop burned. He is sticking to his word, and not much is getting in the way.
And Flesch retained a sense of humor as an ‘L’ train went by on the Loop elevated tracks overhead and interrupted the interview, and even took a pause to break into song, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” and Petula Clark’s “Downtown.”
In all seriousness it is the customers for whom he is rebuilding.
“I used to work here when I was a young man out of the Army,” said customer Roy Harris.
“I’m telling you, when I saw it burning, I was in tears. I was angry. I was upset,” said customer Jerri Zbiral. “This was like, they’re burning my store!”
Reflecting on returning to the store on Tuesday, Flesch said: “This was a nice experience. It’s different. Was I looking for it? No. Was I ready for it? No. Did I expect it? Uh-uh. And the word I’ve used the most in the last three weeks is, wow! Holy s**t! Wow!”
One of those “wow” moments was the outpouring of support for Central Camera’s GoFundMe, which has already earned more than $205,000 to help the store rebuild.