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Thursday, Nov 30, 2023

Collateral Damages

Months after his Van Nuys jewelry repair shop was looted dry, Larry Contreras still hasn’t recovered or reopened. And he may not do either. Contreras owns Don Larry Watch & Jewelry , a modest store along Hamlin Street in the Van Nuys Bazaar swap meet. The densely packed retail row became a target for looters and vandals exploiting the peaceful crowds at police brutality protests that erupted in June after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25. Contreras’ shop is one of dozens of retailers in Van Nuys struggling to recover after suffering theft and damage nearly three months ago. For him and others, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic squeeze have complicated efforts to rebuild and reopen – underscoring the unique challenges faced by the victims of the vandals. Many looted businesses, like a torched Boost Mobile cell phone shop on Vanowen Street, are still shuttered. Contreras told the Business Journal he has done his best to conduct business from his home, but he hasn’t been able to reopen his store. “They destroyed it in an incredible manner,” he said. “They brought hammers and destroyed everything: all the iron bars, the wood boards, the glass display cases. They stole almost everything. … I even have a hammer here that they left behind.” Contreras’ situation is unusual in that his shop doesn’t have a traditional inventory of shelved goods for sale. Rather, it was full of his customers’ personal belongings – valuable items, often generational heirlooms, they entrusted to him for repair or cleaning. Making matters worse, Contreras’ shop wasn’t covered by business insurance, so he’s directly responsible for his customers’ losses. “We have to pay people back for their things,” he said. Contreras estimates his financial losses are between $60,000 and $70,000. That’s in addition to almost three months of lost income due to his shop’s ongoing closure. He said any work he can complete from home will go toward repaying his customers, as will a few microloans from friends and family. Disaster loan While Contreras’ family set up a GoFundMe fundraiser that “helped pay his rent and other bills,” according to an email from Contreras’ daughter Cindy Torres , Contreras said he’ll need government assistance to pay everyone back and resume his shop’s normal operations. But that doesn’t appear promising. Torres said Contreras applied for a disaster recovery loan from the Small Business Administration but was rejected because, without the income from his shop, he didn’t have a reliable enough income stream to pay back the loan as required by the SBA. “If I reconstruct my business, that’s how I’ll be able to repay (a loan),” Contreras said. “The government has not given us anything at all. They keep asking for prerequisites in order to help us, and we keep not meeting them.” Contreras said it made him sad to see how people treated his shop. “That’s my business where I worked for years. I was confused about the way they decided to destroy everything. … The business on the corner got his glass broken. But the business that got hit the hardest, almost with hatred, was mine.” He said that if he is unable to get a sufficient loan soon, he won’t be able to reopen. Scorched strip mall Contreras’ isn’t the only small business owner still reeling from the looting. Three blocks west, Chiropractic Wellness Center , owned by Brigitte Rosenberg , was forced to move out of a strip mall in the 15700 block of Vanowen Street due to infrastructure damage that occurred when looters set fire to a cell phone store three doors down. Office Manager Maria Mendoza told the Business Journal the office wasn’t directly damaged by the fire, but rather smoke and water from the firefighters’ efforts to suppress the blaze. “It was horrible,” she said. “The door was broken by firefighters, the floor was full of water and it wasn’t even possible to stay there for more than five minutes because the smoke smell was insane.” Damaged beyond repair were the office computers and expensive chiropractic equipment, namely tables, which cost around $9,000 apiece. “We’re fortunate the doctor had insurance, which was able to help with our situation,” Mendoza said. Not covered by insurance, however, was the revenue lost by the office when it closed for a month. “We were not able to stay there. The time frame they gave to fix the office was too long – eight months to a year. … We had to move.” The new Chiropractic Wellness Center office is about two miles east at 14600 Sherman Way. The cost of the relocation? $15,000, Mendoza said. Located in the same scorched strip mall at the corner of Vanowen Street and Haskell Avenue is Dental Smile Center , a dentistry practice owned by Rosenberg’s husband Idan Snapir . Mendoza said Snapir’s business shut down for a few days when the mall’s water pipes burst, but didn’t suffer lasting damage. Even so, Mendoza said, “it’s really sad to see this situation right after COVID-19. We were just starting to open days to see more patients.” As for the other businesses in the strip mall, Mendoza said the Boost Mobile store where the blaze originated is still closed. She said a State Pharmacy next door is operating out of what she described as a “mobile unit” while it works to rebuild its brick-and-mortar space. Neither business could be reached by the Business Journal before press time. According to Tim Gaspar , Chief Executive of Gaspar Insurance Services in Woodland Hills, even businesses covered by insurance could suffer financial consequences months after being looted. “A claim on your insurance is never good for your rate in the future,” Gaspar said in an email to the Business Journal. “One single claim is not likely to be a big deal but if a customer had any other claim for any other reason within the same three-year time, they could be non-renewed or have their rate go up significantly.” Chain pains While consumers may assume that corporate retail chains are able to absorb looting-related losses, a sales representative at a Verizon Wireless store on Van Nuys Boulevard said otherwise. The rep, who requested anonymity, said before the civil unrest, the store proactively replaced the cell phones in its display room with fake ones, anticipating theft. “We were going to do the accessories too, but it was taking too much time and (the looting) was already starting,” he said. “To this day, our inventory of accessories still isn’t the same. Screen protectors, cases, chargers, wireless chargers, speakers – the store was packed with a lot of stuff. Now it’s limited.” The looters also made off with the store’s television monitor, which it uses to run promotional communications. Doors, cabinets and display cases were damaged, though Verizon’s corporate branch replaced them within a few days, the rep said. He added karma quickly kicked in for a few looters. “The police caught a couple of them,” he said. “The first and second wave got stuff, but once the third wave came in, they got caught.”

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