AFTER THE RIOTS: THE SEARCH FOR ANSWERS : Shopkeepers Slowly Begin to Reopen Doors

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Along the charred Vermont Avenue corridor Thursday, the corner of Florence Avenue exploded with red roses and purple mums at a recently opened flower shop, glowing like neon in front of blackened hulks of nearby stores.

In front of a wrecked gas station on Crenshaw Boulevard, a vendor sold brightly colored pillows. The corner of La Brea and Pico was once again lined with men looking for day jobs, not looters running wild.

Shops and stands, peddlers and laborers are taking back the streets of Los Angeles. While last week's riots dealt a devastating blow to retailers in southern Los Angeles, Koreatown and Hollywood--and many stores may never reopen--commerce is slowly creeping back to normal among those not burned out.

For individual merchants, mops, paintbrushes and insurance forms dominate their world view for the moment. Issues of regional economic revival, schemes and subtleties of multicultural relations will have to wait until the dust has settled and the shelves are full again.

The important thing for them is that the bitter smell of burnt buildings is mixing with that of fresh paint, and the harsh sound of shovels crunching through wreckage is interrupted by the sound of automatic doorbells heralding the return of customers.

On Thursday, Dyrus Cooper was tidying up and admiring the fresh coat of paint he and friends had applied to his art gallery's bare Pegboard walls after looters ran off with $20,000 worth of posters of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and paintings of African and African-American themes.

"I guess they did me a favor. We hadn't painted in years," said Cooper with a dour smile. A former welder at Todd Shipyards in San Pedro, he has owned the store since 1965. His giant street-side portraits of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, familiar to drivers along south La Brea Avenue, looked down last week over the looters who emptied his store and burned neighboring buildings.

But Cooper, who is 73 and remembers when there were only three restaurants in Los Angeles where a black man was allowed to eat, said he understands the anger behind the rioting. He plans to reopen next week and figures sales may be higher than before.

Bigger merchants too are reopening their doors.

On Wednesday morning, the Thrifty drug store near the corner of Vernon Avenue and Figueroa Street--one of the first to be looted--unfurled a red and white banner that announced, to the neighborhood's relief, "OPEN." The Hula-Hoops were back and even Mother's Day cards. Prescription drug records had been saved, to the relief of customers.

There was little sign of the terror that had nearly cost Sergio Azucena, second assistant manager, his life as he tried to lock the front door on the first night of riots. After being pistol-whipped by looters, it was only by pulling out photos of his family and pleading for his life that he was spared.

Since last week, a volunteer army of more than 30 local residents and 60 Thrifty employees from stores as far away as Costa Mesa and Ventura helped with the cleanup. Some workers came because their own stores had been completely destroyed by fire.

Of 17 Thrifty stores substantially looted, 10 were reopened by Monday and five more will be opened by Saturday, according to Thrifty executives. The future is less certain for the four Thrifty stores that were burned out. Already deep in financial troubles before the riots, Thrifty will hold off on decisions to replace at least some of the burned-out stores.

Thrifty doesn't own those buildings, and if the landlords decide not to rebuild, some of the burned-out stores may be rebuilt on potentially more lucrative sites, said Willis B. Wood Jr., president and chief executive of Pacific Enterprises, which is Thrifty's parent company.

The landmark See's Candies shop on south La Cienega near Rodeo--the first in the city--was also quick to refurbish after it was burned out last week.

It reopened with a flourish of lollipops and hats on Thursday morning, the charred black interior gussied up with the familiar black and white floor tiles.

Ralphs said it is using round-the-clock crews to open up two stores looted, including the one at Figueroa and Vernon, today .

Jung Rha's liquor store on Prairie Avenue was open for business by Tuesday this week, but wasn't yet restocked after last week's looting. Most of the shelves looked as though they'd been vacuumed. But a canister of freshly stocked red licorice stood on the counter, and the Rhas did their best to please with the merchandise they had been able to save.

Two customers entered, chuckling darkly in disbelief at the damage. "Do you have Popov's vodka?" asked one of the men. "No, but we have Smirnoff," Rha said. "No fifths. But we have a pint."

No Kahlua. No Kents. No Coke. No Pepsi.

Despite many reopenings, shoppers in many parts of the city were still hearing this Thursday, and more importantly, no diapers. No bread. No milk. For all the determination of most shopkeepers, much of the city will remain a long bus ride from daily necessities.

There does not yet appear to be a massive exodus of retailers from ravaged areas, at least among business owners who still have a building to work in. But plenty of entrepreneurs who want to reopen are uncertain whether they'll be able to stay, either because their landlords may not rebuild or because their own resources have been wiped out.

And their customers too will have less money to spend.

A man who called himself Jesse, loitering at the edge of Pico Boulevard with men trying to hail construction trucks for work, said that work has been harder to come by since the riots.

By late morning Thursday, the sidewalk was still filled with men who usually had already found work by that hour.

Near Jesse and his friends, in the one remaining strip mall at the corner of Pico and La Brea Avenue, the Imperial Discount store was one that may not reopen.

The wrecked store smelled of soap--bars of Ivory are trampled in the aisles--and faintly of ashes wafting over from the devastated strip stores across the street. Looters took the trouble to tear open Saran Wrap boxes, but rows of white porcelain figurines of French ladies were untouched. All the Walkmans and boom boxes were long gone.

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