For A Baltimore Boutique Owner, A 'Joyous' Reopening After The Riots

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Taylor Alexander, who owns Baltimore clothing store Flawless Damsels, celebrates its recent reopening. A no-interest loan and online fundraiser helped her reopen the shop after it was looted in April's riots following the death of Freddie Gray. (NPR)
Taylor Alexander, who owns Baltimore clothing store Flawless Damsels, celebrates its recent reopening. A no-interest loan and online fundraiser helped her reopen the shop after it was looted in April's riots following the death of Freddie Gray. (NPR)

It's been four months since more than 400 Baltimore businesses were damaged in riots following the death of Freddie Gray. Most — but not all — of those businesses have reopened, although some are still struggling to get back the customers they lost.

Six weeks after the April riots, the windows of Taylor Alexander's women's clothing store were still boarded up. Her shop, Flawless Damsels, was so empty inside that her voice echoed off the walls when she described what it used to look like before looters cleared her out.

"All of here was full of clothes. We had everything set up," she said, pointing to blank purple walls. "We had mannequins hanging off of the walls that had jewelry on them, the shoes and handbags and everything matched with it."

But this past weekend was an entirely different story. The store, located near the city's downtown, was crammed with people helping Alexander celebrate her grand reopening. There were a DJ who had the music blaring and free cupcakes. The walls were covered with the latest fall fashions and handbags. A glass display case was filled with jewelry.

Alexander was able to reopen because she got a no-interest loan of up to $35,000 from the city. Friends and family raised $7,000 online to help her restock. She also had to make some changes, including installing metal shutters to cover the doors and windows at night. But Alexander says she never doubted she'd be back in business.

Flawless Damsels was boarded up (shown here in June) after having been looted in riots following the police-custody death of Freddie Gray.
Flawless Damsels was boarded up (shown here in June) after having been looted in riots following the police-custody death of Freddie Gray.

"Elated, all the words that mean joyous — that's how I feel right now," she said, as she greeted customers with a huge smile.

Local officials say this is just the kind of small business Baltimore needs for its neighborhoods to thrive.

"It's really encouraging that somebody stuck through all the adversity and is back here. This is a great celebration," says Bill Cole, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., which is overseeing the recovery effort.

So far, the city has provided more than $500,000 in grants and loans to some 60 businesses damaged during the unrest. The state of Maryland has provided nearly $1 million more in no-interest loans. Cole estimates that about 90 percent of the stores are back up and running, but he admits some are struggling.

"A lot of the businesses have been able to reopen but not at full capacity. It's taken a while to get merchandise. It's taken a while to cobble together the money necessary for them to buy enough merchandise to reopen at full capacity," he says, adding that some stores were hampered by a lack of insurance.

Dress forms, broken glass and hangers scatter the floor of Alexander's clothing shop after riots in April.
Dress forms, broken glass and hangers scatter the floor of Alexander's clothing shop after riots in April.

And indeed, while Alexander's shop was bustling, that wasn't the case everywhere.

About 4 miles away on West Pratt Street, the Cash USA pawn shop and J-Mart Wigs, a variety store, remain shuttered. Matthew Chung, the son of J-Mart's owners, says that his Korean immigrant parents were too traumatized by the violence to reopen.

It was also relatively quiet in the Highlandtown neighborhood, where sporting goods store Sneaky Feet reopened Aug. 1 after suffering $150,000 in damage. Weekend manager Mily Martinez said inventory is still low and the store doesn't keep as much merchandise in the open as it used to.

"We have everything in the back now. Now we just ... somebody asks for a shoe, just [for] security reasons, we give them only one shoe for the person to try," Martinez said.

The store's owner, Mario Diaz, says business has dropped by more than half, possibly because people don't know he has reopened and that things in the city are returning to normal.

That's a message Tom Noonan has been trying to get out. He's president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism agency. Noonan says while convention business has remained the same or better, museums, restaurants and hotels have all felt the pinch from a drop in casual visitors from around the region.

"The Johnson family of four that live in Pennsylvania that have a choice this summer where they're vacationing may not be selecting us as much as they have in the past," Noonan says.

He says hotel occupancy rates are down 5 to 10 percent since the riots, but that the gap is narrowing.

But some people in the city, like Sneaky Feet owner Diaz, worry about the possibility of more unrest when the trials of the six officers charged in Freddie Gray's death begin this fall.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been four months since more than 400 Baltimore businesses were damaged in riots following the death of Freddie Gray. Most but not all of those businesses have reopened. Although some are still struggling to get back the customers they lost after April's unrest. NPR's Pam Fessler has this update.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: When I visited Taylor Alexander in her women's clothing shop six weeks after the riots, the windows were still boarded up, and the store, called "Flawless Damsels," was so empty her voice echoed off the walls.

TAYLOR ALEXANDER: All of here was full of clothes. We had everything set up. We had mannequins hanging off of the walls that had jewelry on them, the shoes and stuff, matching handbags, and everything matched with it.

FESSLER: But this past weekend, it was an entirely different story.

ALEXANDER: Hello. How are you?

FESSLER: You could hardly hear a thing as people crammed into the store for its grand reopening months after looters had cleared it out. The walls were covered with the latest fall fashions and handbags. A glass display case was filled with jewelry.

ALEXANDER: I'm Taylor. Thank you for coming in.

FESSLER: Taylor Alexander was able to reopen because she got a no-interest loan of up to $35,000 from the city. Friends and family raised $7,000 to help her restock. She also had to make some changes, including installing metal shutters to cover the doors and windows at night, but she says she never doubted that she'd be back in business.

ALEXANDER: Elated - all the words that mean joyous and - that's how I feel right now.

FESSLER: Local officials say this is just the kind of small business Baltimore needs for its neighborhoods to thrive. Bill Cole is president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation which is overseeing the recovery effort.

BILL COLE: It's really encouraging that somebody stuck through all the adversity and is back here. This is a great celebration. And it's emblematic of all the other businesses that we've helped.

FESSLER: So far, the city has given more than a half million dollars in grants and loans to some 60 businesses damaged in the riots. The state has provided nearly a million dollars more in no interest loans. Cole estimates that about 90 percent of the stores are back up and running, but he admits some are struggling.

COLE: A lot of the businesses have been able to reopen but not at full capacity. It's taken a while to get merchandise. It's taken a while to cobble together the money necessary for them to buy enough merchandise to reopen at full capacity.

FESSLER: And indeed, while Alexander's shop was bustling last weekend, that wasn't the case everywhere.

About four miles away on West Pratt Street, the Cash U.S.A. Pawn Shop and J-Mart Wigs, a variety store, remained shuttered. Matthew Chung, the son of J-Mart's owner, said in an email that his Korean immigrant parents were too traumatized by the violence to reopen. It was also relatively quiet in the Highlandtown neighborhood where sporting good store Sneaky Feet just reopened a few weeks ago after suffering $150,000 in damage. Weekend manager Mily Martinez says inventory is still low, and they don't keep as much merchandise in the open as they used to.

MILY MARTINEZ: We have everything in the back now. Now we just - somebody asks for a shoe, just security reasons, we give them only one shoe for that person to try.

FESSLER: The store's owner says business has dropped by more than a half possibly because people don't know that things in the city are returning to normal. That's the message Tom Noonan has been trying to get out. He's president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism agency. He says museums, restaurants and hotels have all felt the pinch from a drop in visitors from the region.

TOM NOONAN: The Johnson family of four that live in Pennsylvania that have a choice this summer where they're vacationing may not be selecting us as much as they have in the past.

FESSLER: Noonan says hotel occupancy rates are down 5 to 10 percent from last year, but that the gap is definitely narrowing. Although, some people here do worry that there could be more unrest to come when the trials of the six officers charged in Freddie Gray's death begin. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.