Published April 17. 2013 6:00PM Updated April 18. 2013 12:22AM
Salem — Snarski's Liquors on Old Colchester Road was demolished after a fire that broke out at the back of the building Wednesday afternoon left it structurally unsound.
The liquor store, which has been open for longer than 82-year-old owner Ray Snarski can remember, was a well-known institution in the town. Wednesday, residents stopped by to offer their sympathy to Snarski, who, according to First Selectman Kevin Lyden, is often referred to as "the mayor of Salem."
"He is well-respected in the town," said Lance Lynch, who pulled over on his motorcycle when he saw the commotion at Snarski's. "Ray's a really nice guy; he's really upset."
Snarski is "kind of like one of the old relics around here," said Mike Ferland, who said he has known the man for 30 years or so.
The liquor store owner likes to tell other residents stories about local history, said Ferland, a former firefighter for the Colchester and Gardner Lake companies. He said he often stopped by Snarski's Liquors just to catch up on what was going on in the town and see how the older man was doing.
Ferland's daughter called from Florida, where she now lives, to tell him about the fire at Snarski's. Ferland was at work in New Haven at the time and stopped by the liquor store when he got home.
"It's heartbreaking, it really is," said Ron Nelson, who described Snarski as his best friend. Snarski was born across the street and has worked in the store since at least the early 1960s, he said.
Nelson stood by the man's side all afternoon as they watched the fire die and then learned that the right side of the building — which contained Snarski's business — would be demolished.
Salem resident Jeff Ruck was riding his motorcycle by Snarski's Liquors in the afternoon when he saw smoke coming from the back of the building. He said he found the owner attempting to put out the fire with a garden hose as he waited for firetrucks to arrive.
Five regional fire companies — Gardner Lake, Salem, Oakdale, Colchester and Mohegan Tribal — responded to a 2:18 p.m. call about a fire in the building. It took them a few hours to put the fire out completely, said Jim Savalle, chief of the Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Co.
The cause of the fire is unclear and is under investigation by the fire marshal's office, Savalle said.
A representative from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives stopped by to verify that the alcohol was crushed and put in a dumpster so that it could not be resold. The state police, building official, fire marshal and representatives from the town's public works department were also present.
Selectman Bob Ross drove down from his job in Hartford when he heard the news. Ross is serving as Acting First Selectman because Lyden is on vacation in California.
Lyden called The Day from the West Coast to express his concern about Snarski's business.
"It's sad to see something like this happen in town," he said.
Around 6:30 p.m., family and friends gathered around Snarski as a backhoe tore into his store. They said the fire was hard on him, but he didn't seem to let on as he leaned against his car, drinking a Busch Light while his cane rested against his leg.
"Hey!" he shouted at the backhoe operator, turning to his family when the man didn't respond. "Hey! Tell him I want that pipe!"
A firefighter stopped the destruction and rescued a stainless steel pipe that had just been torn down. He also pulled the Snarksi's Liquors sign from the rubble, although it was so charred that only the first few letters were visible.
Snarski said the pipe was expensive and could be put to use elsewhere.
While he seemed disappointed that he wasn't able to save the alcohol in his store, Snarski was surrounded by crates filled with photo albums. He said he was able to pull out the 25 photo albums, which contain photos going back to his childhood, before the blaze consumed his building.
As he watched the last standing wall of his liquor store being torn down, Snarski, who sometimes set up a stand outside his store to sell soda or water on warm days, had a new business idea.
"Maybe I'll sell souvenirs!" he joked, gazing at the twisted, sooty remnants of his Snarski's Liquors.