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In the Rebound Business

Small Shops Damaged by Laguna Beach Fire Chart Their Recoveries


In the pretty little town of Laguna Beach, every small shop is its own story of hopes and dreams of success, fulfillment and independence. So when fire or other catastrophe visits, as it is almost supernaturally inclined to do here, it is like an indignant challenge to the human spirit.

Five years ago, a momentous firestorm damaged or destroyed more than 400 homes and yet the city survived and rebuilt. This year flood and mudslides attacked 300 more dwellings and marched on the downtown, and again Laguna bounced back.

And early last Monday, when a blaze claimed a circa-World War I building, charring or outright ruining 10 businesses just before the make-or-break holiday season, merchants emerged with their usual resilience and optimism.

No, the disaster was nowhere near the enormous scale of the earlier fire and the El Nino floods that killed two people. In comparison, this latest incident was more like a bop in the nose. But for entrepreneurs whose livelihoods depend, in most cases, on their small business, the fire that caused an estimated $4.5 million in damage was harsh and horribly timed.

There's an insurance company, a therapist, a shoe store and other retailers. Most are insured, although not always sufficiently. A few carried no protection. Retailers face lost customers and a bleak holiday season unless they can pull off a miracle by restocking lightning quick and finding an emergency location until they can clean up or rebuild.

For small-business people like these, "you're right on the edge," said Mayor Steve Dicterow.

Business and city officials are trying to find temporary digs for the burned-out stores. Time is of the essence; on Dec. 4, the city holds its Light Up Laguna evening of festivities to kick off the holiday season. On cue, the colored lights at City Hall are switched on and police cars and firetrucks turn on their sirens, signaling merchants to flip on their yule bulbs.

Carolers will sing and part of Forest Avenue--where the fire occurred--will be closed to motorists, allowing pedestrians to wander freely.

Despite the latest misfortune, the burned-out businesspeople say they will survive and prosper again.

Laura Downing

The rains came down more like bullets than droplets last December and January, sending water and mud marauding through the women's clothing shop named after Laura Downing, wrecking the new carpet. "When that happened, I thought 'This is unusual' and would never happen again," said Downing, 34.

It did.

This time it was fire and the carpet got trashed again--along with racks of garments. Downing was just financially recovering from the last disaster and doesn't think she carries enough insurance to see her through this one.

"In the last two weeks, I felt we were just coming out of the slump we had during the bad weather last year," said the store owner, who has been at this location for six years. She's still going through damaged wares and trying to assess the loss, part of her not really wanting to know how bad it is.

"I don't want to think about it right now," she said wearily.

She's worried about the insurance coverage, musing, "No one ever thinks there's going to be a fire." Especially right after a flood.

Downing is keeping her spirits up, partly because there's no choice.

"I think [the firefighters] did everything they could to protect my business," she said. And in the aftermath, "the people who've suffered losses have been very concerned with supporting each other."

In the short term, Downing frets that some of her repeat customers--the husbands and boyfriends who come in every year for Christmas gifts--will go elsewhere because of the fire. Yet she's not giving up and is contacting suppliers to ship her more goods.

"Our battle plan is day-to-day. We're going to open up as soon as possible and have the store looking better than ever."

John Campbell

No need to worry about insurance coverage over this way, since John Campbell, 48, is an agent and broker who has spent nearly all of his 23-year career in this old building running the John L. Campbell Insurance Agency Inc., on one of the main streets running through the breezy downtown.

His commercial files are "burned up to ash," but he's discovered there are genuine advantages to the computer age: his wife put most of his data on disks that they kept at home. "We're fairly operational," Campbell said.

Unlike retailers with goods to sell, this Laguna homeboy deals in a service and doesn't have to cull through dismal piles of crisped or waterlogged merchandise, profits that won't be realized, not this year at least.

At the moment, he's anxious to be reunited with some cherished personal items, a medallion and certificates and the crystal gavel awarded for his service as Rotary Club president, the modest symbols that connect people with their own history.

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