THE NOTHRIDGE QUAKE: One year later : Along Reseda Boulevard, One Block of Small Businesses Fights to Recover : Merchants Cope and Hope for the Future : Shop owners at devastated strip malls find comeback harder than they imagined. But some say next 12 months look brighter.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

These days, the Northridge Garden Plaza strip mall is a sad sight.

One year after the powerful Northridge earthquake ripped through this neighborhood, causing roofs to crash in, shattering windows, smashing merchandise and sending toilets flying off their bolts, this formerly thriving strip mall is nearly abandoned. Ghosts of merchants who once plied their wares here haunt darkened storefronts where "For Lease" signs are the only ornamentation.

Of 22 store spaces at this Reseda Boulevard strip mall, only nine remain occupied, including a Coco's Family Restaurant. In the past few months, a hair salon, an escrow company and a used-record store have joined the other small businesses that fled the mall after the earthquake. And in a depressing twist, the meager foot traffic here dropped even further after two adjacent apartment buildings--including Northridge Meadows, where 16 people died in the earthquake--were demolished in October, and sightseers out to gawk at the damage disappeared.

"Sometimes I wonder, did I do the right thing staying here, or should I have moved to another center?" said Laura D'Angelo, owner of the Kids at Heart gift shop that remains in business. "You have these days of self-doubt."

D'Angelo's sales are still just 80% of their pre-quake level, and she's working harder than ever to keep that much. She's spending more on advertising, sales and promotions for the fancy rubber stamps her shop specializes in. She has reconfigured her merchandise mix, focusing more on adult-oriented gifts such as custom jewelry, hand-painted T-shirts and wooden earring hangers. Today she's offering 20% discounts and free food.

Yet for D'Angelo and her surviving neighbors in the Northridge Garden Plaza, there may at last be reason to hope for brighter days ahead. "I feel my business is getting stronger now," D'Angelo said. "I think it's going to be a great year, an easier year. It couldn't be any harder."

Along this block less than a mile from the quake's epicenter, such stories as D'Angelo's are common. Northridge is an affluent area, but this street is lined with strip malls that house mostly tiny businesses whose existence is often a day-to-day battle to produce a few hundred dollars in sales, sometimes less. For them, the earthquake was a knockout punch after the recession had left them bruised and weak.

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Certainly continuing earthquake repairs have stymied many businesses' comebacks. Gail Potter, founder and chief executiG Escrow, said he closed the company's Northridge Garden Plaza office in September and consolidated it into his Woodland Hills office in part because a leaky roof and other quake-related damage went unfixed in Northridge. What's worse, customers avoided the Northridge office. "Real estate brokers said they didn't want to take their clients by that show of destruction, and then go show them a house."

To be sure, two other strip malls on this hard-hit block aren't as empty as the Northridge Garden Plaza, and a few new businesses have moved in to replace some that left. A couple of shop owners even report that their sales have rebounded beyond pre-quake levels. And some have been helped back on their feet by Small Business Administration loans.

But for most of these Northridge merchants, business is still slow, and recovery from the earthquake has been far more difficult than any imagined one year ago.

Adding to their problems is that much of the surrounding area is a ghost town. Condemned apartment buildings are in various stages of being torn down or rebuilt. New piles of earthquake rubble continue to appear daily on sidewalks and in gutters. The Cal State Northridge campus nearby is still undergoing major reconstruction and enrollment is down. Many local homeowners moved away while their houses were being repaired; some are only now starting to rebuild.

And a few blocks away, the Northridge Fashion Center, the big local shopping mall that was the scene of some of the most startling earthquake damage, won't fully reopen until summer. Some small store owners on Reseda Boulevard hoped to pick up new business while the Northridge mall was closed, but many say that shoppers have tended to avoid this depressed area altogether. Indeed, Northridge resident Gail Duckman said she's "gotten used to there being no stores around. I do most of my shopping through catalogues."

Optometrist George Wolfus is still open for business in the Northridge Garden Plaza, but doesn't know how much longer he'll hold out. He said ceiling and wall repairs still have not been done in his office.

Jo-Anne Leventhal, spokeswoman for the strip mall's owner, Phoenix Home Life Mutual Insurance Co. in Hartford, Conn., said that all earthquake repairs are completed and only cosmetic work remains. "We really are very optimistic about the center."

But some tenants who remain say they do so only because they can't afford to move. "I can't just pick up and leave," said Ara Boyajian, owner of Royal Cleaners. "It would cost me too much to move, maybe $5,000."

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Not all are suffering. The My Hero sandwich shop in another strip mall down the street from Northridge Garden Plaza saw a 5% to 10% increase in sales after the quake, "and it's holding steady," said owner Howard Kuebler. Although he misses the former apartment dwellers who used to frequent his shop, after 30 years in business Kuebler still sees many of the regulars who stop in every day--plus construction workers who toil on earthquake repair jobs nearby. "You know how much they eat," he said.

For many merchants though, survival has come down to whether they received a low-interest emergency SBA loan. The deadline for applying for these earthquake-related loans is Friday, and agency spokesman Rick Jenkins said there has been a flood of last-minute applicants. So far, 61% of businesses applying have been approved for quake loans--for a total of $1.4 billion.

For many businesses, "it's been like, 'Either I get the loan, or I'm out of business,' " said Ivette Remon Ibarra, a loan consultant at the Valley Economic Development Center, a nonprofit group that has helped thousands of businesses through the maze of loan paperwork.

One of those assisted by the VEDC is Rochie's Greek Row, a shop two doors away from My Hero that sells clothing and memorabilia to members of sororities and fraternities at CSUN. Owner Roya Saberzadeh said the $49,000 SBA loan she qualified for in November might be her ticket to staying in business.

With the money, Saberzadeh is finishing earthquake repairs inside her shop, and recently purchased a used, top-of-the-line embroidery machine to replace several sewing machines that were destroyed in the quake. The new equipment will allow her to expand her business by taking in bulk orders and doing more specialized sewing work.

Saberzadeh is also planning to do more advertising to lessen her dependence on CSUN students, and wants to start a catalogue. It won't be easy. Sales at the shop are still just 75% of the usual level, and she'll have to come up with another $500 a month to cover the SBA loan payments. "I'm going to be paying for the next 18 years," she said. Yet the SBA loan has given Saberzadeh "a big chunk of hope. The bottom line is, this place means so much to me there's no way I can close it down as long as I'm alive."

But a few doors away, dry cleaner and tailor Gianni Fontana di Trevi said he was denied an SBA loan because his pre-earthquake income wasn't sufficient, and now he's hanging on by a thread. During the holidays, he saw a boost in his otherwise dismal sales, but they've since fallen back to half of normal. If it weren't for his wife's outside job as a laboratory worker, he said, they wouldn't pay the bills.

Across the street, Sandy Darby, co-owner of Le Grand Tours, was turned down three times by the SBA before finally qualifying for a $5,000 loan. But that didn't cover the travel agency's $17,000 in earthquake losses, she said. Meanwhile, her business is down 40% because she's lost many local clients and others have canceled trips to deal with quake repairs.

Other merchants along this hard-hit block say they're determined to stick it out because of their ties to the community. "I've been here 16 years," said Jackie Jones, owner of Jones Coffee Co., a gourmet-coffee and collectibles shop in the Northridge Garden Plaza. "It's like home."

Jones received a $31,000 SBA loan that helped her stay in business, but the shop's sales are still off by 40%. Some customers haven't returned because they're still out of their homes, and those who have come back avoid buying the fragile dishes and porcelain sold at the shop. So Jones has stocked up on items that don't break, including pillows, baskets and "more candles than I've ever bought in my life." Each day she opens her door, "it makes you feel like you have the strength to get it all done."

At the Discovery Shop next door, the earthquake was only the first disaster to strike last year. Two weeks after the nonprofit resale store reopened in September after earthquake repairs, a water heater pipe broke and flooded the shop, destroying much of the merchandise. Then in October, a late-night fire caused by a faulty light fixture could have burned the whole complex, were it not for two diners at the Truly Yours restaurant a few doors away who spotted the blaze and called for help. The damage was confined to the front of the shop.

Despite the "nightmare" of the past year, the Discovery Shop's manager, Jill Angel, said she isn't letting this anniversary go unobserved. The store is having an "earthquake survival" party, complete with Shake-and-Bake chicken and rocky road ice cream. "We survived it all," Angel said, "and we're still smiling."

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