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NY Businesses Struggle After September 11

Some small businesses near Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood, are still struggling to make ends meet. Restaurant owner David Gruber says that for eight years, business was so successful that he had to find a creative way to control the crowds. So he put a rope along the counter of Brewbakers Cafe.

"People, before we had the rope, mobbed the counter. So we put up these theater ropes so that people could form an orderly line, and we could serve them and it could snake through the whole store. Out into the street, people were waiting to come in. We were a very popular place."

That rope became a reminder of the once-bustling cafe.

Brewbakers was just minutes away from the World Trade Center. When the Twin Towers collapsed, Mr. Gruber and his wife and co-owner Helen had to run for their lives. They returned to the cafe one month later, determined to rebuild. After scrubbing away the dust and debris that covered everything, they re-opened their doors to customers.

But business never returned to the way it was before the September 11 attacks.

Mr. Gruber says that seven months later, Brewbakers, which featured live music in the summer and was jam-packed during lunch hour, only attracts a handful of customers at a time.

"Now it is kind of sleepy and quiet. People are not coming out in big groups, enjoying lunch anymore," he said. "They come to eat, go back to work, that kind of thing. People are concerned about their jobs. They are concerned about everything. So we lost the buzz. And we lost the business. It was very shocking. Overnight." Several large corporations and chain stores have recently returned to lower Manhattan. But advocates say many small retailers face ongoing challenges when trying to recover from the crisis.

Unemployment in the financial sector, the relocation of large firms and a drop in tourism continue to have an impact on small businesses.

Officials say state and federal aid is available. Susan Jhun of a non-profit organization run by the Small Business Administration says her agency has allocated more than $2 million in loans to businesses affected by the attacks. A vendor who had a pushcart near the World Trade Center was one of hundreds of recipients.

"At the moment, our priority is, of course, the 9/11 crisis and trying to help people stabilize their businesses. But in addition to that we are helping clients review marketing plans and other kinds of opportunities to expand their business. And helping them plan for the long-term growth," said Ms. Jhun.

Mr. Gruber received emergency funds, but says that the packages were too small to make a difference. He expected government organizations to do more to rescue downtown retailers. As he sunk deeper into debt, Mr. Gruber had no choice but to reach into his personal savings to keep the business open.

"We put our personal money in. We took some personal loans to keep going. We really thought there was going to be a turnaround. Then some of the small aid packages started to come in. $6,000 here, 5,000 here, 4,000 here. So you know, we cobbled together things to see us through. We went down to a bare bones staff. That is what we did. It was hard. It was really, really hard."

After losing more than $100,000, Mr. Gruber made the decision to shut down.

On its last day, Brewbakers was busy one last time. A crowd of restaurant-owners from all over the city filled the cafe for a public auction. Mr. Gruber watched as remnants of Brewbakers were sold, piece by piece. Everything was auctioned off, from pots and pans to large appliances.

He says that he would have preferred a different ending. "I think we lost our energy to turn the business around. I think we just lost our enthusiasm to fight it. And we just don't like coming down here anymore."

But Mr. Gruber says he remains a natural entrepeneur. After taking a long-overdue vacation with his wife Helen, Mr. Gruber says he will put the trauma of September 11 behind him, and start again.