Despite devastation, loyal customer outpouring has downtown merchant determined to reopen

Ken Min’s shoe business Sneaker City in Wilmington was destroyed by looting and smoke damage on May 30

Every day that Ken Min steps inside Sneaker City – the business his father founded in 1980 – he is reminded of the events that took place on May 30th, when his downtown Wilmington store was ruined by mass looting and smoke damage from a fire next door.

Nothing has been touched since that night.  

Baby walking shoes, sandals, sneakers, a TV, an ATM machine, crumpled shopping bags, his cash register, and dozens and dozens of empty shoeboxes – they all are exactly the way Min found things when he returned to his store in the 700 block of Market Street the morning after the worst night of violence ever on the city’s marquee shopping avenue.

Soot now covers the floors, display cases and all of the merchandise – residue from a night when smoke billowed through the baseboards into his store. The stench of smoke still fills the store.

But taped along the outside wall of the checkout counter are lots of pictures of happy children and teens – longtime customers who so enjoyed the service Min and his family have offered on Market Street for decades. Customers sent the Mins Christmas cards with photos or just dropped one off to add to the collection.

Happy customers have given Min their pictures over the years, which he posts at the checkout counter

“I have relationships with our customers. A lot of them are grown and coming in with their kids now. We love sharing their pictures and greeting them by name when they walk inside the store,” he said.

Min was home the night of the looting. But he had cameras on his store, which eventually were destroyed. And he was watching events unfold live through media broadcasts. So, he knew his store was being ransacked.

Min says police estimate 60 people stormed his store between May 30 and May 31, adding that “the looting was happening all night long.” But he says police cautioned him against going down to try to save the store from further destruction.

According to Min, no arrests have been made in conjunction with the theft and destruction at his store. But he says police have told him that they are actively going through footage videos and they’re doing their best to identify as many people as they can.

 

“I knew my business was being looted. I called the Wilmington Police Department about 10 times. And every time it was just, ‘there’s nothing we can do. You know, every business is being looted right now, and there’s nothing we can do.’ That’s the response we get and just to hear that from the police. It was just upsetting. Of course, everyone was mad. I mean my reaction was just angry,” he said.

“There were videos that I saw of the late evening looting, and it was just a free for all,” said Min.

Even the next morning, when Ken’s father Ahn Min went to survey the damage, he found someone rummaging through the stockroom and had to chase the person out of the store.

Min says looters didn’t bother taking shoes displayed on the wall because it would have been impossible to find the match in the stockroom during the overnight mayhem

The reason Min has not begun the arduous task of cleaning up is because insurance adjusters have two problems to evaluate – the theft and destruction of virtually all of Min’s inventory, and the extensive smoke damage caused by firebombs which Min says were thrown inside Wilmington Optical on the night of the lootings.

“They broke into Wilmington Optical first, which is right next door to me, then mine. While they were looting, someone said people were throwing firebombs into Wilmington Optical and set it on fire. The [Wilmington] Fire Department was called. Thank god they put the fire out in time before it got really bad,” says Min.

 

The floors are covered in soot and the smell of smoke has permeated and damaged the entire 4-story facility. Remediation experts have told Min telling that the building, which Min owns, needs to be completely gutted.

ServePro came out to Sneaker City in mid-June and told Min that because of the extensive smoke and soot damage that all walls, flooring and ceiling tiles – even the bathroom – will need to be replaced. “It’s amazing. I can’t believe how much stuff needs to get thrown away.”

Wilmington Optical remains boarded up, as do several other businesses on Market Street. Starbucks, which suffered window damage and theft, and DTLR, another shoe store and the first business to be looted on Market Street, have not reopened.

Al’s Sporting Goods to host clearance sale on July 20

Min says rumors are circulating, based on reports by WPD, that some businesses damaged on May 30 are planning not to reopen on Market Street. One many have their eyes on is Al’s Sporting Goods. Owner Bobby Hart told TSD days after the mass theft at his store that he is considering leaving the city. Seventy-five percent of his merchandise was stolen or damaged.

But TSD confirmed this week Hart has not made his decision whether he will remain in the city or move his business elsewhere.

On Monday, July 20th, Al’s Sporting Goods will host a deep discount clearance sale, featuring apparel that he was left of only one or two of in any particular style and about 500 pairs of shoes that have no boxes because they were crushed in the mayhem of the looting. Hart says he can’t sell shoes at full price without the boxes.

Related: After 83 years, Al’s Sporting Goods mulls options, including leaving city

 

Min says he and his family were proud of their extensive collection of shoes. “We had all kinds of footwear from birth to adult,” he says. But he says the overnight mayhem on May 30th wiped out his entire inventory. And whatever remained has been destroyed by the crushing feet of rioters or by smoke.

“Oh, they were all taken. There’s stuff that was just littered all over the floor in the stockroom. There’s really nothing left. The few pairs that were left were all damaged by the smoke,” he says.

Min couldn’t take us up to the stockroom because there wasn’t any way to do it safely. Piles of trash and merchandise made walking toward the back of the store tenuous.

It’s tough to navigate from one floor to another at Sneaker City because of all of the debris. Min says looters gained access to his business by blowing a hole through the back door, which is now heavily fortified. The front of the business remains secured with steel gates which lock.

Min says that there is also blood on the walls and floors in the upper levels of his business.

The looters apparently gained access through the rear of the store. “There’s a hole the size of like a softball through where the lock was, a big hole, like something was planted there and like a bomb went off,” he says.

Min also owns a wig business across the street, which he is grateful was untouched by looters on May 30. He says businesses on the west side of the street suffered virtually all of the damage that night. And Min has a theory about that. “It seemed like the businesses across the street [on the east side of Market Street], the way that the city is laid out, that here’s no access to any back door to any of those businesses. So that whole side [of the block] was untouched.

 

Sneaker City has served customers on Market Street for 40 years

Sneaker City has been a fixture on Market Street for 40 years. Ken’s father opened the original location in 1980 at 500 North Market Street, where the Queen Theatre now stands.

While the Queen Theatre was originally built at that site in the 1800s there was a period of time – decades – when the Queen Theatre remained closed and three storefronts occupied that space on Market Street, including Sneaker City, which enjoyed the corner lot. When the building’s owner reclaimed the spaces in 2011 to make way for the newly renovated theatre, Sneaker City moved two blocks north.

Min has insurance for his business as well as insurance on the building. But he says the payout doesn’t come close to what he would be making if his store were open. 

 

Min says he wishes there was more Mayor Mike Purzycki and Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracy could have done to defend storefronts on May 30.

“There was more they [Purzycki and Tracy] could have done that night. I heard that police had gotten wind that the riot was going to head over to Christiana Mall. So there were 50 to 60 State Troopers who surrounded Christiana Mall and protected the mall that same night, while it just felt like they abandoned the city, and let all the city businesses just burn,” said Min.

Ken Min shows points to the baseboard, indicating how smoke from the fire next door entered his store

In the weeks that have ensued, Min says he appreciates and respects the Black Lives Matter movement and its intentions to counter systemic racism which has marginalized Blacks, Hispanics and Asians. “It’s sad that it takes violence and destruction for voices to be heard,” he says.

Min intends to reopen Sneaker City, much to the delight of several long-time customers who stopped by to ask about the store when we conducted our interview. He expects demolition to start as soon as this week, and he says he’s hopeful he will be able to reopen sometime this fall.

“So many customers have offered to help. That part has been really amazing. That’s what helps to get us through this,” he said.

Several customers and this concerned police officer stopped inside Sneaker City when we talked to Ken Min last week at his store. “That’s really great news,” said the officer when Min told him he plans to reopen.


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About the Contributor

Christy Fleming

Christy Fleming

The managing editor of TownSquareDelaware.com, Christy Fleming also supports a variety of non-profit initiatives in Delaware. Her background includes positions in public relations, advertising and journalism.

3 Comments

  • This is so disturbing to me. Such a sad time for our already recovering city. I work downtown and walk by these local businesses every day. The devastation is so nonsensical. Time to ask ourselves of all cultures and upbringing, what do we collectively want our city to be? Let’s rebuild it together.

  • Hi Karen. I asked the same thing. Would you mind if I sent the store owner your email address? He may have a celebration when he reopens, and perhaps you could attend that as a measure of support.

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