Hopes for New Store Ease Fire Nightmare
By Lori Schweitzer
Ventura County Star, July, 1985
Running down the short list of things that were hustled out of the Barthelemy home before it burned to the ground in the Wheeler Fire on Tuesday, Lilly Barthelemy was interrupted by her seven-year-old daughter.
"You didn't save my baby clothes," Melissa reminded her. "Oh, that's right," her mother agreed, explaining that Melissa was keeping them for her own daughter. No, Melissa corrected her. "I was saving them as a souvenir."
The Barthelemy home on Maricopa Highway was one of 11 structures destroyed in the fire that by Friday had charred 78,000 acres in two counties and, but for the efforts of firefighters, might have leveled all of Ojai.
The tragedy happened at an especially bad time for Joe and Lilly Barthelemy. The pair, who opened Serendipity Toys in Ojai on a shoestring budget in 1979, were planning to open a branch store in Ventura today.
For weeks the entire family had been busy arranging financing, renting space, setting up displays, and ordering new teddy bears. "Toys were here, there and everywhere," Barthelemy said. He was in the midst of tracking down a 50-box shipment of toys rumored to be headed for Barstow when suddenly their home was burning to the ground. They had evacuated the property when they heard the news. Lilly said she called the Fire Department many times hoping she had heard wrong, but the truth was unavoidable. Their home of eight years was gone.
From the Barthelemy household, five where left homeless: Melissa; her brother Ronny, 15: cousin Joe Jenkin, 19; Bob Nideffer, 21; Lilly, 41, and Joe 37.
At one point Wednesday the fire threatened to take their Ojai store as well, and they frantically scurried to take the most valuable toys to Ventura. In all the panic, however, the idea of postponing the opening of the new store just did not occur to them. In fact, it seemed to be the force that held them together. Delaying the opening, if only for a few days, was out of the question. "Oh no," Said Lilly. "I hated to close it (the Ojai store) the day after the fire. It's the only time in five years that we've closed.
Located at 2040 E. Main Street, Serendipity Toys of Ventura is packed with kites and games and marbled bouncing balls. A menagerie of stuffed creatures is neatly stacked on a display made of gianst-sized tinker toys. "This is our dream," said Lilly in Ventura on Friday. "It's great that we have a store. We have a home away from home."
The whole family was putting price tags on bubbles and music boxes at the new store Friday afternoon, with help from friends, relatives and Scruffy. "This is our dog," Lilly said, introducing the curly blond terrier son Melissa was kissing. "We saved him." They didn't save much else.
The family evacuated with only the clothing they were wearing, so Lilly sent Joe back to the house to gather what he could when it became apparent that their home might be destroyed. He remembered the ridiculous process of choosing from among their belongings. "I just kind of sat there," he said. "I didn't know what to take. I picked up a socket wrench, then I said, "What, do I need a socket wrench for?" He made off with about half a carload: photo albums, a typewriter, Melissa's favorite blanket and doll.
Bit by bit, the are beginning to remember what was left behind - a dulcimer, a Leonard Cohen album, paintings their son made, the paper on which Melissa first wrote her name. It's just as well, Melissa said of the last item. "I spelled my name wrong."
Gone are the trees with their tire swings, and the playhouse that home for Melissa's dolls. "We loved our land and the trees," Lilly said.
It is a historical loss as well. Barthelemy said part of the structure was 100 years old and once housed early Ojai settler Wheeler Blumberg. They also lost a trailer that was parked on the Foothill Road. Lilly finds a lesson in the losses. You learn, she said, what material things mean. "You do get attached to these things, but we are a hell of a lot more fortunate than a lot of people," she said.
They had insurance, for one thing, insurance that is now funding a hotel room and will pay for temporary living quarters. Also, no one in the family was hurt and their business survived.
But Lilly measures her fortune by the support of her friends. "Everyone has been pitching in," she said. Friends drop off clothing, razors, toothbrushes and food. Still, they have all had difficulty reorganizing their lives. "You get disoriented," she said. "When I am in Ojai, I keep on wanting to call home."
As for the future, no plans have yet been made. "It is too early," said Lilly. "I haven't even wanted to go up there." But she offered a pledge; "We're going to be moving back to Ojai."