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Two years after the Harrisonburg explosion, businesses rebuild, expand

Randi B. Hagi
From left: Chris Jackson, owner of Blue Sprocket Pressing; Delman Rasheed, son of the owner of Harrisonburg Halal Market and Sweets; and Chuck Marks, owner of Hometown Music.

It's been two years since a natural gas explosion leveled a commercial plaza in Harrisonburg. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi spoke with three business owners who have been able to rebuild.

Randi B. Hagi
The site of the explosion at 30 Miller Circle is now a bare lot.

On October 17th, 2020, an accumulation of natural gas found an ignition source somewhere in the building at 30 Miller Circle at 8:30 a.m. The explosion was heard and felt miles away on that Saturday morning. Fire erupted in its wake. Five people, including two who were in a barber shop inside the building, were injured.

Delman Rasheed was supposed to be manning his father's store – the Harrisonburg Halal Market and Sweets – but he had, uncharacteristically, overslept.

DELMAN RASHEED: I heard a loud bang. Like a really loud bang. … My Dad comes by, and he says, "we've got to go, the store's on fire." … As I'm driving by, I see a literal mushroom cloud in the sky. It was like a movie, it was insane.

His father, Kareem Rasheed, had opened the store in 2018.

RASHEED: So, my Dad lived in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq his whole life. His Dad owned a shop there as well. He always had the idea of starting his own market. … He worked 20 years in factories, just busting his butt trying to get everything right.

Immediately after the explosion, his father was just glad that nobody from the store was there. But after about an hour, the weight of the loss started to settle in.

Randi B. Hagi
Delman Rasheed was scheduled to work at his father's store the morning of the explosion.

RASHEED: Oh, it was rough at first. … All his life work right there, just burning in front of us. … I was really happy with how the community responded. I didn't expect that, I'll be honest, and it really gave me a different viewpoint of how the Harrisonburg community … they're willing to look out for each other.

People were calling nonstop to see if they were okay. Rasheed set up a Gofundme.

RASHEED: My Dad really did not want me to. He didn't want to get anybody's help. … Just take it to the chin. But I went behind his back and did it. … He was so mad. We raised about $26,000, I believe, which was a godsend at the time. … Yeah, he got over it eventually!

It only took them about four months to open a new store on Neff Avenue, and they've already expanded at that location.

RASHEED: We have basmati rice, we have fresh meat every day …lamb, beef, goat … seasonings, candy.

Rasheed said that, soon, they'll have fresh-baked naan on site, too.

Randi B. Hagi
Three of the higher-end guitars available at Hometown Music.

One door down from the market was Hometown Music – a store that's provided guitars, keyboards, and instrumental advice to local musicians for decades. Owner Chuck Marks started the business in 2000, when he bought out the inventory of Ace Music – a shop he had worked for since the '70s, and whose owners were retiring.

CHUCK MARKS: These are our nicer guitars. [phone chimes] We focus on kind of the beginner, intermediate price range. … I do very much enjoy helping people solve problems and answer questions, and I think that's part of what's kept me enjoying doing it.

He moved the store to Miller Circle in 2013. On the morning of the explosion, he was getting ready for work when he heard the boom. Marks had insurance to cover most of his inventory, and local musicians quickly organized a Gofundme and benefit concerts. But he still had to decide whether he wanted to put in the time and effort to resurrect the business.

Randi B. Hagi
Chuck Marks got his first guitar while a JMU student in the late 1970s.

MARKS: I'm 65 … do I even want to restart the store? Does it make sense, when I'm potentially late in my career, to start it over again? And the community support had a lot to do with that decision. … Just the constant messages on Facebook and posts on Facebook, and emails that people were sending me, … that really meant a lot.

Hometown Music is now located in what used to be a Mick-or-Mack grocery store. Chris Jackson, the owner of Blue Sprocket Pressing, is building out the place as a creative hub. He ran a recording studio that was destroyed in the explosion, but his vinyl record manufacturing operation was already located in the Mick-or-Mack building.

[machine sounds in background]

Randi B. Hagi
Chris Jackson standing in Blue Sprocket's press room.

CHRIS JACKSON: End of the '90s, early 2000s, people just assumed this format was dead. … And here we are, over a hundred years after the invention of the phonographic record, and this is the thing everyone wants!

The 'press room' is home to two giant, boxy record presses, and sacks of vinyl pellets of every color stacked up on pallets.

JACKSON: We keep turntables right next to the presses so guys can pull them off and check them as they go. Right now, these guys are just setting up for another job.

The Blue Sprocket team makes records for everyone from little indie bands to major labels.

JACKSON: This [opens box] record was fun. … Sweeping Promises' Hunger for a Way Out came out during the pandemic, ended up on just a ton of lists … all the trade mags, all the zines. … This has to be the most re-pressed album we've ever worked on.

Randi B. Hagi
Inside the record press, melted vinyl gets squished between two nickel "stampers" into a disk with musical grooves.

In the back of the building – what was most recently the Backcountry Lounge – is where Jackson and his crew are planning to rebuild the studio. Right now, it's a cavernous open space, with sound equipment sitting alongside ductwork. In addition to recording and engineering rooms, Jackson wants to create a flexible space that could host music lessons, podcasting, and community events, and generally serve as a gathering place for artists.

JACKSON: Instead of just rushing to rebuild exactly what we had on the day that that terrible event happened … what does this area really need, and what would it then take us to make sure that's what we build back?

In two short years these businesses have not just come back, but are growing and thriving and dreaming. As the late, great John Prine sang on a compilation record that Blue Sprocket pressed – against all odds, honey, they're the big door prize. 

Randi B. Hagi
Striking, multicolor record designs are one of Blue Sprocket's specialties.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.