In the Wake of Katrina: Big Easy's Big Struggle To Get Back to Business

The obstacles are formidable for New Orleans merchants that were spared major water and wind damage and are trying to get back to work.

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Across Chartres Street, a trombonist plays native son Louis Armstrong's tune, "Do You Know What It Is to Miss New Orleans" on a sidewalk facing an almost vacant Jackson Square, where President Bush made a televised promise that New Orleans and the Gulf Coast would be rebuilt.

Along once vibrant Magazine Street with its 120 boutiques, art galleries, antiques shops, and cafes, only 20 percent are back in business, said retailers Bonnie Wilson and Roz Weinstein, whose 1,500-square-foot store, Weinstein's, is a high-end shopping destination.

The shop was among the first to open more than two months ago — along with Belladonna Day Spa, whose owner Kim Dudek pared down the offerings to a handful of "restoration" services, including massages and facials. "I felt it absolutely critical to be available to the few people who were venturing back," she said.

When faced with few customers, Weinstein and Wilson, printed 800 postcards to mail to their scattered customer base. Hundreds of phone calls and e-mails to friends and friends of friends finally netted temporary addresses.

"We just wanted to let them know we were back in town — and by inference, they should come back, too," Weinstein said.

As a few customers return, they are not interested in couture, she said. Even though many have lost their entire wardrobes, they are shopping for T-shirts and black pants, at $30 to $90 and $300 price points, respectively.

"There is just no precedent for this kind of business climate," Weinstein said. "We are playing it day-to-day, trying to figure out if we have too much inventory or not enough."

Getting a handle on the market is a bit like shooting at a moving target. When in doubt, some take the creative route. While she was in exile for two months in Mississippi, Maine and South Carolina, jewelry designer Mignon Faget turned her anxiety to creating a tiny fleur de lis lapel pin. Attached to a royal blue ribbon, the Rebirth Ribbon, was introduced in her shops on Oct. 28 in sterling silver and bronze d'ore, for $25 and $12, respectively.

More than 500 have been sold and orders for 1,000 are stacking up, she said.
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