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Store Owner Clings to His Dream Despite Third Fire : Arson: Blazes have been set and the windows smashed repeatedly at the Armenia Gift Shop. But the businessman won't give up.

April 29, 1993|TOMMY LI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GLENDALE — Alex Keshishian is finding it difficult to sleep nights. The 49-year-old immigrant worries about his Glendale gift shop, his American dream come true.

It boggles his mind that anyone would want to shatter that dream by setting fire to his store at 900 E. Palmer Ave.--not once, but three times since October, 1990.

The most recent blaze struck Monday, bringing the total damage to $382,000 over the past three years.

"I'm really frightened," Keshishian said. "I'm in a situation where I can't come up with a decision on what to do--continue the business here, or to move to another place, or to secure it 100%.

"I don't have any (bad) relations. In the Armenian community, everybody knows me."

Keshishian, a native of Cyprus, moved to Armenia at age 20. In 1988, he and his wife and two sons fled the then Communist-ruled republic and came to Glendale, seeking freedom and success.

Having learned and taught English in Armenia, Keshishian was able to find a job as a welfare social worker with Los Angeles County.

"After a couple of months, with the money I had, I just opened a little store (on Palmer Avenue)," Keshishian said. "I had this idea before coming to the United States. . . . I thought that to move forward with big steps, my (social worker) job was not enough."

With his savings, he leased office space on Palmer Avenue and opened Armenia Gift Shop. Its low prices and offers of credit attracted customers from Glendale's large Armenian community. But within two months, vandalism struck.

"They break all the windows," he said. "They repeated it three times (within a year)."

Things got worse on Oct. 8, 1990, when an arsonist poured gasoline through the business's front-door mail slot and set the liquid afire. Total damage costs for the structure and its contents was $30,000, Glendale Fire Battalion Chief Mike Carter said.

Despite the blaze, Keshishian expanded, leasing more office space and installing a security alarm system.

Minor vandalism occurred periodically until last March 19, when a second, larger blaze destroyed the new business space and caused $350,000 in damage. Carter said officials discovered during the investigation that four other fires had been attempted.

The third and most recent blaze broke out early Monday when someone shattered the store's front window and set a fire inside. Flames damaged two boxes of clothing--including silk shirts--and a glass counter containing watches and cigarette lighters. The remaining items inside sustained mainly smoke damage. Structure and content loss was $2,000, officials said.

"Is it abnormal that a place has been repeatedly torched? Yeah, it's unusual," said Glendale Police Sgt. Lief Nicolaisen. "The connection between these arsons is under investigation."

Keshishian is now considering installing an iron gate and hiring a security guard. He expects that, as in the past, insurance will cover the damage.

"It was hard to sleep last night . . . because I don't feel secure," Keshishian said Tuesday in his store. The carpeting inside was soggy, and the odor of smoke remained strong. "We (he and family members) were patrolling (the store) all night."

The one thing Keshishian has not considered is giving up. He is asking anyone with information about the fires to call the store at (818) 545-7716. He is also offering an unspecified reward.

"All this time I'm in a very bad situation," the merchant said. "If the arsonist is not caught, this will happen again. (But) I don't want to be defeated. If I move out, it means they did what they want."

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