LAKELAND, Fla. - Sometimes the best way to deal with a tremendous loss is to find a way to smile your way through it, and maybe even laugh when humor is hard to find.
For Mylinda Rinker, that seemed to be her way of handling a fire that all but destroyed her collectibles business, which was located in the "I Dream Eclectic" Mall on South Combee Road in Lakeland. The mall caught fire early Thursday morning, ravaging all of the 30 antique stores inside.
"I can see melted piles of plastic, and that's all that left," said Rinker, pointing to the second level of the warehouse style building, where she once had several suitcases dating back decades. Rinker also had several collectibles from the 1800's that were likely a total loss.
Still, Rinker made her way around a small gathering of vendors as they hoped to gain access to the mall to see if anything could be salvaged, but fire inspectors kept them out because of safety concerns. Rinker seemed to be making a sincere effort to keep spirits high.
"You just go, 'OK, so we don't have insurance,''' Rinker said. "We move on."
The building's owner, Phoebe Flynn, said she will try and make a claim on her property insurance once the damage assessment is complete.
"We're shocked," Flynn said. "We're overwhelmed," she said, as many of the vendors were still arriving to see the damage firsthand.
"I Dream Eclectic" store owner Ramona Harris said it was painful informing her fellow store owners about the damage.
"It's all stuff. But you know, it's family. And the hardest thing for me was calling the other vendors and saying this had happened," Harris said.
Polk County Fire investigators said they were looking into the possibility that lightning struck the building, creating a spark that caught a bookshelf ablaze near the front of the structure.
The cause is of little consequence to the store owners, as many of the items were irreplaceable.
"We had 30 different vendors inside with all different kind of things," Harris said. "Comic books and sports cards and memorabilia and antiques and metaphysical and repurposed furniture. Just a little bit of everything," she said.
Members of the Lakeland Business Leaders came to give assistance to the vendors, and a fund for donations is being set up through Community Southern Bank.
"It's a sense of community," said Jill Smith, an LBL member. "We all work together to help one another outing in times of need, we're there for each other," Smith said.
As the vendors sipped fruit juice, enjoyed pizza donated from Hungry Howie's, and ate Krispy Kreme doughnuts right next to the burned out building, Rinker was looking for something to salvage.
She found an antique couch, the upholstery completely burned away, with the springs sticking out of the ruined support.
"These springs are actually desirable in the shabby chic realm," Rinker said, describing how they can be converted into picture holders or mail slots.
"It seems silly, but you know what? When you can salvage something and make happiness out of a disaster, why not?" she laughed.
If you would like to make a donation to help the victims of the "I Dream Eclectic" fire, the Lakeland Business Leaders have set up an account at Community Southern Bank.