On Sept. 21, 81-year-old Nedjatollah “Ned” Harounian hoped he could sell some boots outside his Doc Martens store on Melrose Avenue.
Young shoppers, crushed-ice drinks in hand, perused the stores in search of trendy clothes and vintage finds, occasionally stopping at outdoor cafés. They seemed unaware of the havoc unleashed on the iconic shopping district four months earlier in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis. Although most of the protests were peaceful, over the course of several days, many stores were looted and vandalized.
However, when the shoppers passed the Doc Martens store on Sept. 21, they stopped. The entrance, which had been boarded up since early June, was now open. The sight was jarring: hundreds of burned shoes and leather jackets strewn across the ash-covered floor, twisted columns of melted metal and, in the center, a caved-in roof.
These charred remains are etched into Harounian’s memory.
As the Journal previously reported, Harounian was at home on May 30 when he received a call from his son, Ebbi, who had seen the live news footage of looters breaking into their store. “They looted it and then they set it on fire,” Harounian said. “When I got here, fire trucks were everywhere. I never imagined that hell would look like this. I felt like my entire life was slipping away. If you tried entering the store from the back, the flames would erupt. From the sides and the ceiling, there were flames. I just kept wondering, ‘What was I going to do after this was all over?’ ” Unfortunately, he was not insured.
“What can I say? Like these jackets, my whole life was reduced to smoke.”
— Ned Harounian
A place of purpose
Harounian came to the United States in 1985 as a refugee. Born in Isfahan, Iran, he spent his childhood in the city’s Jewish quarter (Joo-bareh) before moving to Tehran at 22 to open a fabric store with his uncle and brother.
Harounian said he believes he spent his best years in Iran during the reign of the secular, Western-oriented Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic revolution. Soon after, anti-Semites targeted Harounian’s store and in one instance, he said, almost killed his brother before the two escaped. They returned to the store to find that everything had been stolen.
Harounian said his teenage son, Ebbi, repeatedly was harassed by local officials, occasionally for wearing short-sleeved shirts. Harounian found a way to smuggle Ebbi out of Iran through Afghanistan. “Right before my son was smuggled, the authorities arrived. I pushed him down a well so they wouldn’t find him,” he said.
Iran’s closed-border policy meant that Harounian couldn’t secure a passport for his wife, Yafa, and their two daughters, Firoozeh and Farnaz. They were smuggled out of the country with the help of HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), to Austria. “We risked death,” he said. “There are many who tried to be smuggled out of the country and are still missing.”
Harounian was forced to stay behind in Iran. Two years later, he finally was reunited with his family in Los Angeles in 1985. At the airport, Yafa jumped into his arms. “I hugged my son and my daughters,” Harounian said. “We cried tears of real joy. You can’t even imagine such reunification.”
Harounian and Yafa were married for over 50 years, until she died three years ago from complications of pancreatic cancer. “I have so many good memories with her,” he said. “My wife really wanted to spend more time alone with me. She used to say, ‘Nedjat, let’s go away together for a few days,’ but I never made time for it.”
After Yafa’s death. Harounian sold his house and moved into an apartment. “Before my wife passed away, I was in much better spirits,” he said. He kept her wedding band and heirloom jewelry at the store, where he believed they would be safe, but now, amid the store’s ashes, he doesn’t know whether the items were burned or stolen.
In the 1990s, when he opened his first store on Melrose, it was Yafa who helped him. Back then, “I didn’t even speak enough English to say, ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ” he said. But he had a knack for engaging customers, even if his children had to act as translators. “I became so friendly with the customers. I learned about their lives,” he said. “They’d give me their phone numbers and ask to stay in touch with me. Some of them would say, ‘We love, you, Ned.’ Especially the women.”
Celebrities also came to his store to buy his designer goods including Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Arsenio Hall.
After Yafa’s death, Harounian found the store provided him with a sense of solace and purpose and he continued to come to work, until the pandemic forced him to close in the spring. “I still came to the store,” Harounian said, “even if it wasn’t open to the public. I just wanted to be here, so I sat and watched TV all day. I was here every day until I received that call from Ebbi.”
Survival and redemption
These days, Harounian returns to the store to clean debris and salvage some merchandise. Sometimes he stands outside and tries to sell shoes that have remained intact. On May 31, the day after his store was destroyed, the family launched a GoFundMe campaign. To date, it has raised almost $97,000.
“I don’t want to solicit anyone, but if people can help, it would make things much better, so I can start all over with the store, and with life,” he said. “If you’re not working, you’re not being useful. From the time I was 5 or 6, I started working. I worked my entire life to get here.” He picked up the burned remnants of leather jackets and said, “What can I say? Like these jackets, my whole life was reduced to smoke.”
Nevertheless, Harounian remains optimistic, envisioning a grand re-opening. His daughter, Farnaz, who owns the ethical fashion brand Sprezzatura, hopes to create art installations out of the decimated jackets.
This Sukkot, Harounian, the eternal optimist and self-made businessman, will find himself surrounded by his store’s four flimsy walls and a roof that’s partly open to the sky. It won’t be a sukkah but it will hold in its fragile space the dreams and prayers of survival and, he hopes, redemption.
To contribute to Harounian’s GoFundMe campaign, click here.
Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist.