Memories from a Flag Store on the Morning of 9/11

By Michael Hale
Owner Emeritus, Elmer’s Flag & Banner

The line began forming even before our store opened on the morning of 11 September 2001.

We were still stunned by what  we’d seen on TV—the twin towers collapsing, the thousands of people who died. But we had to proceed.

We had begun sending massive orders for U.S. flags to our multiple flag manufacturers/suppliers early that fateful morning. Our experience during Operation Desert Storm told us we had better order big and hope we would get a ration of the total available.

We ordered a year’s supply of flags that morning. It would not be nearly enough…

When we opened our doors, 75 people or more poured inside—we could not move through the store.  All ten phone lines were ringing.  Every available sales clerk, two outside salesmen, the shipping clerk, the two bookkeepers, and the three sewers all came to help.  Soon the line went down the block.

There was a quiet solemnity, and every customer was patient and polite. There were some who said it was the first U.S. flag they had ever owned. Others spoke of loved ones or friends whom they could communicate with who were in the towers. My own daughter was visiting in New York and planned to visit the World Trade Center that day. I saw tears as people held their flag.

Now the line wrapped around the block. My wife tried to call the store; not getting through she left work and came to help. She stood at the door and metered the flow of people, letting in only 20 or so at a time. Who would have imagined a flag store with a bouncer, and a pretty one at that? We set  up an express line leading directly from the front door to the counter and the three cash registers. But some people didn’t want that. Some said they had waited two hours—they wanted the full experience of shopping in a flag store.

I walked the line outside several times and talked to people as the day wore on. They were making friends, some exchanging phone numbers, others leaving and buying lunch and water for those near them in line. Others, who had to leave the line to pick up kids from preschool or other errands, left money—even credit cards—so that total strangers might buy them a flag.

We limited people to one 3×5-foot flag per family, rationing the flags in the hope they would last the week. As one of the largest flag stores in America, we had a large supply. But it was dwindling quickly.

Elmer’s Flag & Banner, Portland’s iconic flag store—founded by Mike Hale’s stepfather Elmer Reider in 1963, and now owned by Dave Anchel.

On Day Two we again had a line down the block. As expected, our U.S. flag manufacturers responded that they would only ship us a  fraction of our orders.  We found a local fabric outlet with a stock of roll goods of printed U.S. flags needing to be cut, sewn, and grommeted. We set our sewers to work. But they could only make 200 a day. We needed double that number.

Then someone checked our on-line orders, forgotten in the previous day’s mêlée. Thousands of orders were still pouring in from all over the country.

Across the U.S., most flag stores had closed after that first day. Still other stores’ Internet sites crashed. We sent the roll goods to the sewing staff at Jansen Knitting Mills, who were seeing all their swimsuit orders cancelled. They could sew thousands a day! We bought broom handles for poles and air freighted in heavy metal wall brackets.

The line continued each day and would for over a week. This was patriotism, but not the kind where you wave a flag on a pole at a soccer game. It was a kind of quiet determination, a kind of solidarity, a badge of courage—that we were Americans, united, and we wanted to show our pride.

We stopped everything in the store to observe the moment of silence decreed by the president. You could have heard a pin drop if it were not for the weeping. Tears fell again. Our emotions were raw.

So it would continue for weeks on end. We sold every U.S. flag, every sticker, flag pin, flag patch, car flag, and flagpole in the store. We sold two and a half years’ supply of U.S. flags in two months.

More flags arrived in time to fill the thousands of on-line orders. Everything had been shipped in overnight air. We paid tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay and temporary help. Our phone bill was staggering.

Customers wore out the carpet, and some staffers developed foot problems from so much time on their feet. But not one staff member called in sick for two months. At year’s end we gave them bonuses and matched their 401K contributions to the maximum.

We had sold everything at normal, everyday prices. No one in Portland could have missed the news broadcasts of the lines, the groovy close-ups of the flags being made by our sewers, the interviews with customers. For a brief while, the U.S. flag was at the top of the charts, the star attraction.

One of the results of the millions of U.S. flags sold by all the flag stores across the nation was an increased awareness of the meaning and power of the flag.

Also, the next spring we saw an interesting by-product of the millions of people mounting flag brackets on their homes: many would buy and place decorative house flags on these poles.

That week a new star was born.

Mike Hale retired from Elmer’s in 2011 and remains an active member of the Portland Flag Association.

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