GREENWICH VILLAGE — Husband and wife Noam and Annie Freedman have owned Firestore on Greenwich Avenue for two decades — but they never planned on dedicating their careers to members and fans of the FDNY and NYPD.
Before the Freedmans opened the store in its original location on Lafayette Street in 1991, Noam, 49, ran a printing franchise, while Annie, 46, managed a mail-order contact-lens company.
The lifelong Manhattanites opened Firestore, which is now located at 17 Greenwich Ave., because Noam had extra space next to a shop he ran near FDNY headquarters, which has since relocated to downtown Brooklyn.
"The idea was to open a little gift shop for the firefighters and their families, and it turned out that more people than the firefighters were interested," Noam said Wednesday afternoon.
They sold T-shirts emblazoned with the FDNY and NYPD shields, and a line of products with the trademarked slogan "Keep Back 200 Feet," building a loyal customer base along the way.
"We have customers who have come every year for 20 years," Annie said. "When [firefighters and police officers] come to New York, they can know they have a home here. We have a bathroom and usually a pot of coffee on," she said.
Firefighters have visited from as far away as Australia, Japan and New Zealand, and connected with each other in the shop, said the Freedmans, who also live in the Village.
Today, the store's FDNY- and NYPD-branded merchandise, all of which is officially licensed, includes everything from T-shirts ($20-$24), to refrigerator magnets with scantily clad firefighters from the 2012 Calendar of Heroes ($5.99) and patches from fire companies across the city ($4.99).
In the store, firefighters exchange patches from their companies and sometimes even the shirts off their backs.
"It's a firefighter tradition," Annie said.
But after the Sept. 11 attacks, the mood of the store changed.
"Pre-9/11, the whole nature of the store was celebratory," Noam said. "Post-9/11, it was like being a curator of a memorial."
The Freedmans found themselves acting as counselors to whomever visited the store and shared their stories.
"People came in, and they felt a need to disclose where they were [on Sept. 11] and who they lost," Annie said. "It gets to you."
Sometimes, people working at Ground Zero following the attacks visited the shop after leaving the World Trade Center site.
"You could smell them. You could close your eyes and know it was them," Annie added. "It was heartbreaking."
The ache has faded somewhat over the past decade, but it worsens each September, she explained. Ultimately, the Freedmans decided not to celebrate their 20th anniversary because it coincided with the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, Noam said.
"We did some very quiet back-patting about it," he said. "Had it been another year we'd have probably had PR or thrown a party, but it didn't seem appropriate."
Since Sept. 11, the Freedmans have given more than $250,000 to charities including the Widows and Children Fund of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, New York Presbyterian's Burn Center and the New York City Fire Museum, Annie said, adding that it has been a pleasure to serve their clientele.
"We always say we've got the nicest customers on the planet. Not just anyone would put their life on the line for a total stranger," she said. "It's an honor. It really is."