"We got a box of pictures. . . . some of her jewelry." But the vast Elvis Presley collection--"all those records!"--is gone forever.

Vickie Vaughn, daughter-in-law of Jessie Vaughn, 81, tallied the losses. Her mother-in-law, a 50-year resident of an apartment on Main Street in Ellicott City, lost much to a fire on her block Nov. 9.

The fire, which damaged five buildings along the historic street, displaced 10 families. The families were among those who have long lived in the apartments over the town's stores, a remnant of an era when such arrangements were common. As America has become a more suburban nation, residential and commercial establishments usually are kept separate.

It still is uncertain what will happen to Main Street's damaged buildings or to its displaced residents.

For Jessie Vaughn, the financial hit was considerable. She had no insurance and paid a rent so low that it has been impossible to find anything comparable. But the psychic wounds, harder to quantify, seem more painful.

The scrapbooks full of Ellicott City history, for example. Jessie Vaughn, who moved from Tennessee to the neighboring town of Oella at age 2, "had all these books of the different things that had happened over the years," chronicles of local events from the early part of the century, Vickie Vaughn said.

She and her sister-in-law thought about taking the books home with them a few weeks before the fire, so fascinated were they and so eager to preserve the scrapbooks for posterity. Her mother-in-law "had a lot of things about fires" in the books, Vickie Vaughn recalled.

Unfortunately, Jessie Vaughn broke a leg shortly after the fire, became very depressed and eventually lost her short-term memory, according to her daughter-in-law.

"She doesn't understand that she's not going back," Vickie Vaughn said. Her mother-in-law currently lives with a son in East Baltimore.

It's not clear yet whether there will even be apartments again in the fire-damaged buildings.

Ronald Spahn, an attorney for one of the building owners, Bruce Taylor of Historic Ellicott Properties, said his client plans to rebuild. He's not sure, though, whether there will be residences in the rebuilt structures.

For Charles Wehland, part owner of two damaged buildings, rebuilding hinges on the insurance. As for rebuilding the apartments, he said, "I don't know why we couldn't." One former tenant checks in regularly for updates, he said.

Living over a storefront has perks for businesses and tenants alike, said Margaret Smith, whose business, the Margaret Smith Gallery, is across Main Street from the damaged buildings.

As a business owner, Smith likes that the shopping district is not "a ghost town" after she leaves at night. There are still several apartments in buildings up and down the block.

And as a former Main Street tenant--Smith lived over the gallery for a year and a half--she felt a strong sense of community.

She remembers "walking into [nearby restaurant] Cacao Lane for dinner in the evening and sitting in the bar and talking."

"It was my own little version of 'Cheers,' " even if no one shouted her name when she walked in, Smith said.

As a business owner, she still has the sense of community but said there was something about living on Main Street that really brought it home.

Many of the apartment dwellers on Main Street were no doubt charmed as well by the 19th-century structures in the historic district, an area invariably described as quaint. But the buildings' very quaintness has led some to wonder whether they were safe; older, unrenovated structures follow less restrictive fire safety standards than new construction.

Landlord Wehland, however, said he doubts that any interior measures could have prevented damage in this blaze, which has been blamed on a restaurant employee who went outdoors for a smoke. One of his buildings was renovated nine years ago and was up to the code of the time, he said, though it didn't have sprinklers. Those were required in 1992 for commercial buildings of 5,000 square feet or larger.

Sprinklers "don't do much good with that kind of fire," Wehland said. "It started on the outside of the building."

He noted that Rugs to Riches, a store in a building owned by Historic Ellicott Properties, was damaged by the fire despite having sprinklers. Rugs to Riches now is operating nearby.

Capt. Ken Byerly, of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, said that Wehland's point may be true--he doesn't know enough about the early stages of the fire in all the buildings to be sure--but that such a case would be "few and far between." If the fire started on the roof, for example, a building with sprinklers could sustain considerable damage. But if flames licked in on the first or second floor, sprinklers would have prevented destruction, he said.

David Hammerman, of the county's Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits, pointed out that the fire safety measures in place for these older buildings worked in the most important sense: Everybody, even pets, got out alive. If there were no smoke alarms or exits were blocked, the result could have been much grimmer.

The fire has sparked a proposal in Annapolis to provide low-cost loans for owners of historic Maryland properties to help pay for costly fire-safety retrofitting, whether or not such upgrades are required by code.

But that's in the future. For now, Ellicott City residents have banded together to help the victims of the fire. Fund-raisers have included a dinner at Tersiguel's restaurant, a golf tournament in November and at least two concerts.

Churches have offered damaged businesses sites from which to operate. Expressions of sympathy and concern pour in regularly, as Sue Graham, a worker at the spared Caplan's Antiques store, attests.

"A lot of people come in very happy we're still here and say they were praying for us," she said.

And concerns haven't been limited to fans of the street's businesses. As her daughter-in-law relates, Jessie Vaughn was the recipient of a most timely act of kindness.

A concerned man saw the elderly woman on Main Street shortly after the fire started, looking upset. He took her to Ellicott Mills Brewing Co., a nearby restaurant and bar, to be away from the chaos and the devastating view of her memories going up in smoke. He stayed with her and tried to distract her from her worries until the Vaughns arrived.

Later, Vickie Vaughn said, "He sent her a card, told her that she had really brightened his day."

Those wishing to contribute to the fund for the fire victims can obtain details from the nonprofit group Historic Ellicott City at 410-461-6908.