The old axiom that things, both good and bad, come in threes has particular significance for Sarah and Robert Gabriel.
On the good side they are recent proud parents of triplets. Alexander, Bishop and Carly were born Feb. 15 at Inova Fairfax Hospital, at the height of the first blizzard of the 21st century.
"We picked the names because the hospital and doctor kept referring to them as Baby A, Baby B and Baby C throughout my pregnancy," Sarah Gabriel revealed.
Then came the not-so-good news. Following the big snow came the big rains. On Feb. 22, just seven days after her delivery, she found herself helping husband Rob hurriedly clearing customer artwork out of their framing shop, where the ceiling was crumbling from the combination of snow and water on the roof.
Next they were notified their Mail Boxes Etc. franchise store on Mount Vernon Avenue, which they had opened just one year prior, February 2002, was changing the name and all identifying trademarks to become the new UPS Store.
Finally, after six weeks in the hospital, the babies came home on March 29. On April 14, Carly stopped breathing and "was as blue as a blueberry," according to Sarah Gabriel. Rob Gabriel immediately began to administer CPR as his wife called 911. "I got her breathing, and then she stopped again," he recalled.
"Eight paramedics showed up," he said. "I never saw so many in one place at one time." They immediately took over treatment, rushed Carly to Inova Alexandria Hospital, and then medevac’d her back to Inova Fairfax Hospital.
SHE IS NOW reunited with her two brothers, and all are doing fine. But the same can't be said for Sarah and Rob Gabriel — at least not as far as the saga of the framing shop is concerned.
"We were able to save all our customers' artwork because we could bring it across the street to our home. It didn't have to be transported any distance," he explained. The shop is located at 1607 Commonwealth Ave., and the Gabriels live at 1616.
"But, we lost all our inventory, such as the board backings, wood frames and other materials. You can't use those materials once they have been wet. They tend to shrink and warp when they dry out," Rob Gabriel, who's been in the framing business for 15 years, explained.
The Gabriels have had to convert the first floor of their home to a frame shop work area because their store remains in shambles, even though the insurance company has approved the reconstruction work. "Ever since the rain came pouring through the ceiling, it’s been one frustrating experience after another," Sarah Gabriel said.
"We have business interruption insurance, but that only covers a reasonable amount of time. We, and the insurance company, thought that five weeks would be plenty of time to make the repairs and be reopened," they both emphasized, "but our landlord has delayed and delayed. Nothing has been done."
Sections of the drop ceiling hang precariously from the frame grid. A light fixture had crashed to the floor when the plaster ceiling around it gave way from saturation. And, the framing tables remaining in the shop were strewn with mildewing pieces of ceiling tiles and plaster.
ACCORDING TO THE Gabriels, the building — which also houses a karate studio, dry cleaners and small neighborhood market, in addition to Gabriel’s Custom Framing, in a strip mall alignment — is owned by Alperstein Asner Realty of Baltimore. It is managed by Commercial Real Estate Associates, 2111 Eisenhower Ave.
The Gabriels' shop suffered the most severe storm damage.
"We have been trying and trying to get the management firm to do the repairs, but they keep telling us that they don't have a contract yet with a builder. Even though their insurance company has authorized the repairs," Sarah Gabriel complained. "What can we do as a small business?"
Of the other three businesses in the common-roofed building, both the Colonial Market at 1605 and OK Cleaners at 1609 suffered some water damage to their ceilings, as well. Tae Kwon Do, at 1611, suffered no damage, according to owner Kwang Yang.
"We suffered both ceiling and wall damage," Young Kim, stated at OK Cleaners. "My father talked with Commercial Real Estate Associates back in February right after the water came through, but they couldn't give us a date when the roof would be fixed. They only said that when the temperature got to 60 degrees, it would be fixed."
The same story was related by Yoo Lee at the Colonial Market. They suffered water damage stretching the entire length of the store along the line of the florescent lighting fixtures and on the common wall with the Gabriels’ framing shop.
"I talked to the landlords, and they said they could not fix the roof until the temperature was over 60 degrees," Lee explained. "We lost a lot of inventory due to the leaking, and the electricity had to be shut off for several days. We had a new electrical line put in."
Mark Stofko, a partner in Commercial Real Estate Associates Inc., verified, "The contract has been signed with a contractor. Now it's just a matter of getting the necessary city permits so we can get started. We hope in a couple of weeks."
He further explained, "We have been wanting to replace that roof since last November, but the harsh winter caught us off guard. Actually, before the February storm the market had suffered the most water damage over a period of time. The Gabriels just had a few small leaks. We want it (the total roof) repaired as soon as possible."
According to Michael Conner, chief fire marshal, Code Enforcement, the building owners have been cited by the city for the existing damage. "Getting the necessary permits for the repairs is a walk-in process. There shouldn't be any unusual delays," Conner said.
THE GABRIELS emphasized they do not want to move their frame shop out of the area. "We love this area, both to do business and as a place to live. Everyone has been extremely supportive and helpful, with both the shop and the babies. The Potomac West Business Association has raised money for us," Rob Gabriel noted.
A native of the area, he graduated from Mount Vernon High School. Sarah Gabriel hails from Ann Arbor, Mich. In addition to being in the framing business, he is also a musician proficient on the bass, clarinet, and guitar, which he plays in various musical groups throughout the region.
Before their marriage, she was in the hotel business with both Hilton and Sheraton as a catering manager. "We met at a party after I came back from a European trip with my sister," she said. "We moved to the Del Ray area in 1998, and we both love it.
"We know all the people and they know us. We have more than 1,500 regular customers. That's why we don't want to take the framing shop anywhere else."
At the time of the storm, the artworks of more than 100 of those customers had to be saved. It was done by Sarah Gabriel; her mother, who was visiting and suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome, which can cause severe pain when lifting anything; Rob Gabriel; and a friendly neighbor with a truck.
Everything was loaded into the truck, driven around to the rear of their home, and placed in what was then their family room. It is now the makeshift frame shop with the piano serving as a shelf for various clamps and joints.
As for the UPS Store, Sarah Gabriel, who is the prime entrepreneur for that enterprise, noted, "We are going to have the same address, 2308 Mount Vernon Ave., and everything will basically remain the same except for the name."
She clarified that UPS, which bought the franchise approximately three years ago, did an extensive marketing study and found that most customers were more familiar with the services of UPS than Mail Boxes Etc.
"We are still a family-run business. It's a franchise like any other franchise. The only real change since the new name is that we are no longer a drop for Federal Express, since they and UPS are competitors," she pointed out.
"Most of the business is actually packaging and shipping, not the use of the mailboxes. But they remain. In fact it is much more personal than having a post office box. It gives the customer an actual address, and they have access 24 hours a day seven days a week," she explained.
ROB GABRIEL LEARNED framing while working at the Alexandria Picture Framing Co. in the 1980s. "I always wanted to do this, but no one would hire me on my own because I had no experience. That's why I went with the Alexandria company. One day the owner told me I had learned all there was to know and that I had the necessary talent, so he suggested I go out on my own," he said.
Having the babies was a lot easier than dealing with the frustration of getting their framing shop up and running again, they both agreed.
"I was put on bed rest beginning in December because of the triple pregnancy. Then I was in the hospital for two weeks prior to their birth. And we traveled back and forth to Inova Fairfax every day for the next six weeks until the babies came home," Sarah Gabriel said.
With it all, their spirits are high, and there is that most vital of all elements necessary for entrepreneurial success — a can-do attitude. "This will all work out. And we are really trying to remain optimistic that the management company will make things right," they both insisted.