Profits of Doom: Where Manhattan Shoppers Wait in Long Lines for Gas Masks Anti-Radiation Pills—and a Sense of Security

BusinessWeek Online | February 20, 2003

A mix of curiosity and fear inspired me to visit the terrorism-protection retail store Safer America. When the government put us on high alert, like many Americans, I began thinking about the precautions and equipment that might improve my chances of surviving the aftermath of another September 11. So, for forty minutes in the bitter cold, I waited in a slow, shuffling line to enter Manhattan's first emporium devoted entirely to staying alive after a terrorist attack. Wanting to know which was the best of the seven types of gas masks the store sells, I put the question to Safer America CEO Eric Samama. "It doesn't matter anyway," he said, "they're all gone."

Located at the corner of Nassau and Fulton streets, not much more than a stone's throw from where the World Trade Center once stood, lines of eager customers curved around the block while neighboring shopkeepers watched with envious eyes from their own, underpatronized stores. The growth and success of the business has matched the anxious and uncertain times in which we live.

ANXIOUS NATION. 

While co-founder Harvey Kushner declined to detail his outfit's profits, the store's temporary closure over the Presidents' Day holiday weekend speaks eloquently of its success: Unable to meet demand for wares that range from anti-radiation pills to parachutes and purse-handy gas masks, Safer America shut its its doors so staffers could rest, recuperate, and restock.

Kushner opened the store with partner Samama in October. Just four months later, they are poised to open a second location in Midtown. Predicts a confident Kushner: "We're are going to open stores all over the country."

Kushner is more than entrepreneur with a finger on the pulse of the public mood. He is the author of four books on terrorism, including the recently released Encyclopedia of Terrorism, and has consulted with government agencies in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to his own expertise, Safer America also taps the insights of antiterrorism veterans with experience in Israel and the Mideast.

HELL NO, WE WON'T GLOW. 

Kushner's background is reassuring, although being in his store is anything but. The spectacle of displays featuring gas masks, protective suits, parachutes, and emergency air-filtration systems is a chilling reminder that, afterSeptember 11, the homeland is on the front lines. The most popular item: the Millennium gas mask, which goes for $339 and is said to protect the wearer from nuclear, biological, and chemical fallout. "Potassium iodide pills have been another big seller," says Kushner, who explains that the tablets should be taken to slow the body's absorption of radioactivity after a nuclear attack or the detonation of "dirty bomb" that would use conventional explosives or incendiary agents to scatter radioactive poisons. At $10 for a ten-day supply, the pills are some of the least expensive items in the store.

As the looming conflict with Iraq continues to stoke fears of terrorist reprisals against U.S. cities, Kushner's wares seem unlikely to go out of fashion anytime soon. Indeed, they have even been finding a place at protest marches. At a recent antiwar rally in Manhattan, one protester in an anti-nuclear/biological/chemical suit and gas mask was spotted holding a sign, "We Don't Want to Live Like This." No, nobody wants to spend their lives breathing through a filter -- but plenty of New Yorkers are prepared to pay for the ability to do so if the need arises.

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