By  on November 23, 2005

DALLAS — The Village Drummer, a women's specialty store in Gulfport, Miss., once had an enchanting view of the Gulf of Mexico. All that's left is the foundation and a tin roof.

Hurricane Katrina has wrought a future filled with uncertainty, said Laura Warr, who managed the bridge boutique for her mother-in-law, Kay Warr.

"We're considering rebuilding in that location at some point, but right now the city doesn't see any possibility of building down there for a while," said Warr, the wife of Gulfport mayor Brent Warr, who owns a men's store that was also lost. "There are huge sinkholes."

Independent retailers along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas are struggling to define their next steps after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some are opening permanent new locations in towns where they have relocated or have moved into temporary quarters elsewhere. Others are returning to their damaged communities and hoping for the best.

"You have to be optimistic," said Sharon Thomas, who reopened Purse Strings, her casual sportswear shop in Beaumont, Tex., on Oct. 10 after having been closed more than two weeks because of Rita. "We're all very resilient."

To reach out to stores, the Dallas Market Center Co. in September sifted through its database and identified 997 apparel and gift stores in zones directly hit by the hurricanes or just outside them, including Houston, said Marie Conners Levigne, senior director of soft goods retail development. Her department worked the phones to call all of them to find out how they were doing and offer market travel discounts to those hit hardest.

"We're hearing no 'Woe is me,'" she said. "They're so upbeat about getting back into business."

Nevertheless, the impact on wholesale business in Dallas has been significant.

"It was devastating and wiped out the southern sector of Louisiana for us," said Dana Melton, owner of Lori Veith, a multiline fashion and accessories showroom at the market center. He estimates that 60 of his accounts were displaced or temporarily out of business. "We hope these people can and do reopen."

Brad Hughes, whose namesake bridge fashion showroom is one of the largest at the market center, said about 100 customers have been affected. He received so many order cancellations that he can't bear to total the dollar amount."There is going to be a hit, especially at the lower price point, because a lot of these little stores may not necessarily open back up," Hughes said.

Among those that have relocated, Prêt-à-Porter, a New Orleans contemporary shop, opened Nov. 16 in Madison, Miss., an affluent town eight miles north of Jackson. Owner Beth Gearheard fled there to stay with her parents when Katrina hit.

"We had heard our store was dry and OK, but our merchandise was just sitting there, so we decided to find a temporary place to sell out what we had," Gearheard said. "We found a nice, brand new shopping center, and we signed a five-year lease. We will concentrate on getting our New Orleans business running in January."

Pret-a-Porter was able to vacate its space on Magazine Street because the lease had expired. Gearheard plans to link with a friend who has a stationery store and open a joint shop next year on the street.

"We can cut our costs and rent while the city is trying to get back on its feet," Gearheard said.

Similarly, Ballin's Ltd., which has a flagship and another unit in New Orleans, leased a store in the Jackson suburb of Ridgeland. The company has three other stores within Louisiana, in Covington, Baton Rouge and Lafayette.

"We've had many customers from Jackson who would ask us to open there when they came to New Orleans," said owner Wendy LeGardeur. "I woke up and realized my general manager was living in Jackson as a result of the hurricane, and this was the time to do this."

Mimi, a designer store on Magazine Street, sublet a shop in east Memphis, where owner Mimi Robinson was reared.

"We had originally anticipated being here until January, but we had a store here ... years ago, so if we do really well here then we'll have two stores," manager Erica Geldersma said. "Our ultimate goal is to go back to New Orleans."

Retailers in Beaumont, which had been evacuated, began opening during the second week of October after having been shut since Sept. 22 because of Rita.Purse Strings' Thomas said, "It's been busy — I've been shocked. People who don't have severe damage ... are ready to get out."

But the situation is far from normal. Thomas has been trying to figure out where her orders were since some were returned to vendors while the city was closed. She traveled to market in Dallas in October with a budget about the same as last year.

In some cases, one store's loss can be another's gain. Tammy Jones, owner of The Boutique, a moderate-price shop in Baton Rouge, said her business had doubled as Katrina evacuees increased the city's population.

"I wasn't prepared for this, but I got on the phone with vendors and was able to get more merchandise," Jones explained. "Instead of ordering six pieces of a top, now I'm ordering a dozen or 18, and it's all selling."

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