AUBURN GRESHAM — Gus Safi has struggled to find his footing ever since his South Side store, Hollywood Beauty Supply, was forced to close after it was looted in the spring.
It’s not the first time his business was devastated by unrest. Six years ago, his beauty supply store in Ferguson, Missouri, was reduced to ash and rubble as residents protested after police killed Michael Brown.
A few months after that Ferguson store was destroyed, Safi and his family moved to Chicago — the city where his family first lived when they moved to the United States from Jordan in 1992.
And he’s not giving up. Safi recently reopened the Washington Heights store, 9434 S. Halsted St., to try to make ends meet. His insurance company hasn’t paid out yet, and his family has had to live off credit cards, he said.
The May looting across Chicago came after massive protests downtown demanding justice after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Now, Safi hopes to slowly rebuild and give back to the South Side community that raised him and has supported his business for years.
Returning to Chicago after a 20-year absence meant relearning the culture and the people. Safi worked at his brother’s beauty supply store in the south suburbs for several years and then decided he’d try again with his own place, this time on the corner of 95th and Halsted streets.
“Business was excellent. All of our staff were people from the neighborhood, and the community was great. We were giving away free things every week,” Safi said.
For three years, all was well. Even when the pandemic hit, Safi and his team managed to stay afloat.
But on the weekend of May 30, small businesses on the South and West sides — already struggling due to the pandemic and long-time disinvestment — were hit especially hard by the looting.
Safi’s store was among them.
“I got a call from one of the employees telling me to check the cameras because they were getting calls from friends saying that the store was being looted,” Safi said. “Even though I’m hearing this, I can’t believe it. Then I check the cameras and I see people inside the store, all over the place, snatching everything.”
Overcome with emotion, the father of four fell to the ground.
“I didn’t think it could happen again. I kept on asking ‘Why? Why are you doing this?’ Twenty-five years of working hard and it’s gone in less than a second,” said Safi, who estimates he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in inventory and equipment. “And I’m remembering Ferguson, and the people who suffered, the employees who lost their jobs, and there was nothing we could do.”
But Safi said he understood the anger and desperation of the time. He knew what happened to his store wasn’t a betrayal, but a plea for change. When friends and family told him to leave Chicago and try again elsewhere, he scoffed.
The day after Hollywood Beauty Supply was looted, it was community members who came, brooms and dustpans in hand, to help him clean up. That show of support meant the world, Safi said.
“A lot of businesses come into the community and treat the people so poorly. It bothers me when I see them disrespect the customers. You’re taking their dollar, but you’re not respecting them,” Safi said. “I didn’t want that. I feel like I’m part of the community.”
After the cleanup, Safi was forced to close the store for months. Part of the reason he recently reopened the store was to bring in some income as he waits to see if his insurance company will pay out his claim.
In the meantime, Safi is doing his best to rebuild with the hope that, one day, he can somehow help the community that has given him so much.
“Wherever you go in Chicago, you blend in. It’s not like other places where they look at you like a foreigner,” he said. “This is the city that raised me. It taught me everything.”
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