PhillyDeals: Century 21 was near ground zero on 9/11

Posted: August 05, 2014

"It's the only job I ever had," says Eddie Gindi, co-owner of the eight New York-area Century 21 department stores. He is preparing another one for Philadelphia this fall.

Scion of a retailing and real estate family, Gindi went to work for his father and uncle - who founded Century 21 - as a student in 1977. "Back then it was just two stores: Brooklyn Bay Ridge and Manhattan," across from the World Trade Center, he said.

The store had been there since 1961, even before the towers. At first it was the size of a Philly rowhouse. "[They were] selling very cheap. But the vision they had was incredible," Gindi said.

The World Trade Center rose in the late 1960s and early '70s, a shining mass extrusion of the financial district. As its PATH and Metro train stations pumped in workday waves of traders, bankers, clerks, all ranks, Century 21 spread into a neighboring Woolworth's, a bank, seven buildings, finally occupying 200,000 square feet.

"I had to break down a few walls. It was kind of a maze," Gindi said.

Then, Sept. 11, 2001: "I went up to the roof of our place in Brooklyn," Gindi said. "I saw the second tower hit. The collapse."

"We didn't know where our people were, where my brothers were," he recalled. Trained store security got everyone out safe. But the chain's flagship store "was completely destroyed," Gindi said. Windows blown out, fixtures shot, merchandise wrecked.

The company sent its downtown workers to outlying stores. "We were fully staffed," Gindi said. "But we didn't want to fire anybody."

Six months after, the Lower Manhattan store reopened, improved. No more maze.

Ten years later, the Gindis joined neighbors at the new National September 11 Memorial Museum. Eddie Gindi saw the site's ornamental pear tree, splintered in the attacks, now richly flowering. Gindi wrote a song, "The Survivor Tree," for his band, The Men in My Head. We can use this to help someone, he thought.

Gindi approached Tuesday's Children, the 9/11 survivors' nonprofit, whose Project Common Bond brings together survivors of terrorist attacks around the world in hopes of healing.

"I called their director, Terry Grace Sears, and said, 'I want to help you raise some money, when can you meet?' She said, 'In about five minutes.' "

He told his 9/11 stories and played his song, and cried.

Gindi put his CD on sale at Century 21. He says he raised $275,000 in six months "through a lot of hard work and real teamwork from both ends."

He helped bring Common Bond to New York last year. "We greeted them and gave them some gifts and let them shop," Gindi said. "They met guys in the band."

This year, Common Bond brought young people from Latin America and Africa, Israel, and the Palestinian territories to Bryn Mawr College, for events such as the Peace Olympics.

"I was so glad it was in Philadelphia because we are coming to Philadelphia," Gindi said. "It must be some kind of good omen. We want to be part of the community there. Philadelphia is the right spot for us."


JoeD@phillynews.com

(215)854-5194

@PhillyJoeD

www.inquirer.com/phillydeals

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