Monday, September 8, 2003

A block from the site of the World Trade Center, Evelyn Robb still worries. Sales at her chocolate shop were devastated by the September 11 attacks, and they remain down as Lower Manhattan struggles to recover.

“It still hasn’t really improved,” Miss Robb said. “I wonder what’s going to be in the future.”

In Rancho Cordova, Calif., Tom Lusi’s data-storage business has changed, probably forever. After September 11, he lost millions of dollars in government contracts as money was reallocated to homeland security; he had to switch to digital video storage or see his company fold. He has new government work, and sales have rebounded, but his payroll is half of what it was before the attacks.

“What we’ve done is, you lick your wounds and get on with it,” said Mr. Lusi, chairman of Removable Media Solutions Inc.

Whether they were located near the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or hundreds or thousands of miles away, small businesses have had to cope with drastic changes caused by the attacks. Now, two years later, many still struggle while others have found ways to rebuild. Some have recovered with the help of government loans.

Miss Robb, who owns a shop called Evelyn’s Chocolates, lost customers from the Trade Center and surrounding buildings whose corporate tenants fled after the attacks. And tourists no longer visit as much.

“It was a very difficult time to go through, and it still is,” Miss Robb said. A Small Business Administration loan helped but hasn’t assured her future. “I’ve been here for 40 years, and I really want to stay,” she said.

A few miles north, in midtown, sales at Arnold Greenberg’s travel-book shop have rebounded but, like Mr. Lusi, he has had to remake his business. As Americans canceled vacations in the months after September 11, Mr. Greenberg was forced to give up selling recently published books and guides and focus on antiquarian volumes instead.

“I can’t say it was a good thing. It really broke my wife’s heart. … But we had no choice,” said Mr. Greenberg, owner of the Complete Traveler Bookstore. He said some customers were angry, but that without the change, he would have ended up in bankruptcy court.

Mr. Greenberg’s store is faring better now because “the antiquarian-book business didn’t drop to the same extent as the new-book business. … But I don’t think it’s ever going to go to the point where we would start to carry new books again.”

The business owners, even if they have weathered the two years relatively well, sound weary, even chastened.

Gerry Elwood, owner of the Maids, a home-cleaning franchise based in Red Bank, N.J., said her business is “more than back on track,” but she had to double her territory to accomplish that.

Miss Elwood’s business took a series of blows. Several customers died in the Trade Center attack. Other clients canceled cleaning appointments out of depression — “everybody knew somebody” who was killed, she said — or because they feared having outsiders come into their homes. People who lost jobs or whose small businesses were hurting stopped her service, because, as Miss Elwood acknowledges, it’s a luxury.

Then the anthrax scare complicated advertising: People were afraid to open her firm’s solicitation letters.

“It was pretty ugly for several months,” Miss Elwood recalled. She had to rebuild because “I’m not doing this to be a hobby — this is my life.”

Some companies persevered because they had a solid cadre of loyal customers. J&R Computer and Music World, a retailer near the Trade Center, was shut for six weeks and lost its inventory while it was used as a post-September 11 command center, co-Chief Executive Officer Rachelle Friedman said.

“We had to figure out a way not to lose our customer base during that period of time,” Miss Friedman said.

So J&R offered free shipping to customers in the metropolitan area if they ordered via its Web site and toll-free number. Miss Friedman said it was able to make up for the loss of walk-in customers.

“We’ve been open 32 years and have a very loyal customer base. They’ve been cheering us on and sending us encouraging e-mails,” she said.

Some of the companies faring better said they would have failed without loans. The SBA, which originally made economic injury disaster loans available to the areas around the Trade Center and the Pentagon, expanded the loans nationwide because so many businesses were affected by the attacks.

“I would have closed the business,” Mr. Lusi said.


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