APPAREL UP, ASBESTOS DOWN: Hit by a $3 million charge for removing asbestos from some of its units, Venture Stores, O'Fallon, Mo., reported first-quarter operating earnings fell 48.2 percent to $1.9 million. A year ago, operating earnings were $3.7 million.

The company said apparel business was strong, however, and helped boost sales 14.1 percent, to $414.9 million from $363.6 million.

Hot sellers included knit tops, logo sport shirts and character-licensed merchandise, said Julian Seeherman, chairman and chief executive officer.

Seeherman also noted particular strength in spring merchandise, including sandals, women's dresses, denim shorts and plus-sized sportswear, adding that the sales trends are sparking second-quarter optimism. Apparel makes up about 38 percent of sales.

A spokeswoman said the asbestos cleanup will have no effect on normal operations. She said 70 percent of the charge is for one St. Louis store, where asbestos was discovered during remodeling in the first quarter. The company has already checked 40 stores out of the total 104 stores that Venture operates and found no other asbestos problems, she said.

The current cleanup efforts involve 31 units. The rest are not at risk because they were built after the use of asbestos was banned, she added.

In an unrelated development, Jim Miller has resigned as executive vice president of marketing, Venture said. He could not be reached for comment. Venture said it expects to name a replacement next week.

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