The former A.J. Walker & Son hardware store — a downtown Truro landmark — was badly damaged by fire on Thursday.

More than 60 firefighters from fire departments in Hilden, Bible Hill, Salmon River and Cobequid spent the afternoon and evening battling thick smoke and stubborn flames that began at approximately 2 p.m. at the 120-year-old building on Prince Street.

John K. Lynds, who owned a clearance centre in the building, was the first to notice the fire.

"By the time I turned around and looked in there and the ceiling was on fire and I got a couple of things out and that's all I could get," he told CBC News.

"I couldn't breathe after that so we called 911 and they came in but I have no insurance so it's a total loss."

While fire officials haven't determined what caused the blaze, Lynds thinks it's electrical.

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John K. Lynds, who owned a clearance centre in the building, was the first to notice the fire. (CBC)

"The panel that goes right up across the stone fireplace had sparks coming out of it and the flames," he said.

"The lights were all on fire then."

Emergency workers evacuated surrounding buildings and blocked off Prince and Waddell streets while they fought the blaze.

An excavator arrived on the scene in the evening to tear down the east end of the building, where the fire began.

Blois Currie, the Chief of the Truro Fire Service, told CBC News the fire had been contained to that section of the building and roughly a quarter of the structure had been lost.

A.J. Walker & Son Ltd., an anchor hardware store in downtown Truro for more than a century, closed in February 2012. Since then, several small businesses moved in, including a photo studio, a T-shirt store and a tack shop.

Terri Mingo was supposed to open her business next month, selling repurposed materials.

"I was planning on buying insurance in May because all I'm doing in there is painting, but I guess I was a little bit stupid," she said Thursday.

"I should have had it earlier because I was storing things, I was storing items in there."

The owner of the building told CBC News the structure itself is insured.