CHESTER -- The Wednesday morning customer at Chester's Upcountry II Antiques & Gifts had an idea of what Will and Pat Dennis had been through.
"Y'all have persevered a lot," the visitor told Pat, referring to the neighboring building that collapsed last year and kept the Dennises antiques store closed for 10 months.
But piece by piece -- old lamp by old glassware by old dresser -- the Dennises' collectibles are returning to the place they were whisked away from in December.
"It's just like being gone a while and coming back home," said Will, who along with Pat moved their business to 105 Main St. in 1997.
Last year, the Dennises spent the day after Christmas taking down the store's holiday display. The couple had endured a difficult year, one that included losing their son to cancer.
They looked forward to beginning a new year.
By mid-afternoon that day, the building was cleared of its Christmas garb. Some items had been stored in the neighboring building at 107 Main St.
That structure collapsed five minutes after Pat left the antiques store.
No one was injured when the late-19th century storefront for the Olde English District Commission and Giltner's Tax Service toppled. Investigators determined the unseen decay of an outside wall caused the sudden implosion. Immediately, officials worried about the collapse triggering a "domino effect," causing other buildings to suffer the same fate.
Thus, the Dennises, who learned of the collapse from a Captain's Galley waitress during dinner, started moving their items the following day. A Chester County building inspector temporarily condemned the home of the antiques store as well as the rest of the downtown block.
The couple was given 4 1/2 hours to clear out three floors of antiques.
Friends and customers carried heavy boxes filled with dishes, shelving items and collectibles into an adjacent store, racing against the clock.
As their window of time grew smaller, basement items were brought into a back parking lot. Some things were taken to a cotton warehouse, space offered by County Councilman Alex Oliphant, who owned the site of the antiques store and the collapsed building.
"It was a positive experience in the midst of all the shambles," Pat said of the local support.
Pat is from West Virginia. Will is from Florida. They moved around during Will's career in the U.S. Navy, with Pat giving birth to children in Florida, California and Japan.
But they made Chester home in 1996, and that's the place where people came to help them that day.
"There's always a blessing in anything that happens," Pat said.
Around the middle of last month, the couple was given clearance to move back in. The Dennises have always shared a love of antiques, even when they married almost 43 years ago, a time when owning older items wasn't fashionable.
People find comfort in antiques, Pat said, noting that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, people came to their store seeking solace in the things of the past.
The Dennises also find peace in talking to their customers, the people who have begun to trickle through their doors as Will cleans the glass-pane shelves and Pat wipes off the dishes, cups and other trinkets.
Although they haven't been open in nearly a year, the Dennises are financially OK, living off their retirement money. But their visitors, the antiques collectors from Charlotte and Greenville and folks such as the lady who asked for a restaurant recommendation Wednesday morning, those are the people they've missed for 10 months.
The couple hopes to begin regular hours on Nov. 13.