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A usually crowded and busy street is seen empty with closed down business in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico on November 7, 2017.
Photo: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images

What’s Happening With Puerto Rico’s Stores After Hurricane Maria?

Following the devastating storm, boutiques across the island are back in business.

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Imagine all of the hard work that goes into opening and running an independent clothing boutique, from permits to advertising to buying the right merchandise and building a loyal clientele. There’s also the challenge of competing with other boutiques, in addition to large businesses, in order to make ends meet. When one of the largest hurricanes in the country’s history, Hurricane Maria, descended upon Puerto Rico, boutique owners’ level of uncertainty rose to an unprecedented level.

Ripping through the Caribbean island as a Category 5 disaster in September 2017, Hurricane Maria left the nation’s residents with no electricity, running water, or access to channels of communication and necessary services. Around six months later, the recovery is ongoing; about 7 percent of the population still lacks electricity; many are struggling to get back on their feet, both on the island and in the mainland US; schools have closed; and hundreds of thousands have emigrated, mostly to Florida. In the aftermath, the local economy continues to feel the effects of the hurricane, and boutiques are part of the story.

Located in the historic and popular Old San Juan district, Collective Request was closed until the beginning of December 2017. Originally an online store established in 2013, the boutique has had a physical presence in the capital city for two years. During the hurricane, water from the roof leaked into the brick-and-mortar store, ruining clothing and other materials, according to owner Ashley Cervantes. The building smelled of humidity, and it took weeks to clean up. Cervantes thought about what the path would be like moving forward.

Cervantes, who spoke to Racked in Spanish, said, “Well, I wanted to stay, but at the same time, I felt fear not knowing when the electricity would come back, if I would start to sell, the employees that I was going to keep having, you don’t know. And the other question was if the electricity comes back and if people aren’t going to be buying, since you never know how people are going to be, if it would be worth it.”

At this boutique of curated pieces, including accessories from Puerto Rican designers like Viviana D’Ontañon and Carolina Rodriguez, not having electricity was one of the main obstacles to overcome. Government help was slow to arrive and, because of buildings’ structures, businesses in Old San Juan weren’t able to use generators for power, one of the few ways that other shops were getting by elsewhere. There are several restrictions for generator use that stem from the noise and gas that the machine emits. By Cervantes’s account, the state government stepped in only after businessmen and -women protested in the area.

Visit us at Old San Juan #shoplocal #oldsanjuan #viejosanjuan

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For Denise Marcano, who owns Genesis Boutique, the electrical problems were her biggest challenge, but Nydia Diaz, her mother and employee, said that most difficult thing was starting over. Approximately 40 minutes from San Juan in the town of Juncos, the shop lost practically everything. Home to gowns for weddings, proms, and the coming-of-age quinceañeros, the store suffered losses including about 335 dresses, plus shoes and accessories. Marcano and Diaz were able to receive new merchandise on the regular schedule because they had bought it before the hurricane landed in Puerto Rico, and because it arrived after the disaster struck.

Damages to Genesis Boutique were so serious that a new store was needed. Preparing the new space cost roughly $35,000, per Diaz, and at first customers didn’t know it had moved down the street. The previous location had been well known and popular.

“People would pass by and say, ‘Oh, they closed, they closed… the venue is totally destroyed.’” Diaz said. “People said that because they didn’t know that we had moved to another place. And we put a sign up in front that said ‘Genesis’ with an arrow down, that we were further down, but even with all of that, people didn’t look at that. We started there, and then at the end they were able to put a phone, but that wasn’t that long ago.”

Sonia, who didn’t provide her last name, was shopping for prom dresses with her daughter at Genesis Boutique in early March. They found out about the store through her daughter’s friends and traveled from another town specifically for the boutique, after finding limited options post-hurricane.

Customers having fewer places to shop is one of the reasons that Ilka Cintron, from Passo Boutique in Caguas, thinks her boutique has experienced an increase in sales in the last couple of months. In the weeks directly after the hurricane, Cintron sold very little, but the store has been on the upswing after the first month or so. She opened it around three weeks after the hurricane and operated, for a time, with a small generator. Efforts to keep in touch with clients included sending text messages, emailing a mailing list, and updating social media even though communication was limited. Due to lack of electricity, which meant that customers couldn’t iron clothing, and the heat resulting from tropical weather and no indoor air conditioning, Cintron changed the clothes she was selling to adapt to the circumstances. Orders were canceled and new merchandise was purchased.

By her account, many people weren’t buying clothes in the beginning, and the boutique seemed like a “psychology center,” where customers stopped by to talk about their hurricane-related experiences instead of shop. In addition, both of Cintron’s full-time employees left and moved to the United States.

Those vacancies brought work to Gabriela Alejandra Santiago Cordero, who has worked at Passo Boutique since October and models its clothing on social media. Cintron dressed Santiago Cordero for the Miss Teen World Puerto Rico beauty pageant, and Santiago Cordero maintained a relationship with the boutique before becoming a recent hire.

The clients who visit the store now have to go around a traffic light post that blocks most of the limited parking available. It was moved there during attempts to clean up the road in front. Even though she’s been making an effort, Cintron reports that she still doesn’t know when the government will remove the post. She plans to take on the costs of building a new storefront that can’t be knocked down by another hurricane, even though she’s renting her current location. Another option is to buy a larger, automatic electrical generator, one that’s more substantial than the small one she used after the hurricane.

According to El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, at least 5,000 small businesses closed in Puerto Rico in the couple of months after the hurricane. Around eight out of 10 jobs come from small business, so these closures are of substantial impact. The small businesses that have remained open operate within the reality of the island’s decade-long recession. Another hurricane season is a few months away, and this past hurricane uncovered how fragile and in need of repairs the country’s electrical system is. On March 1, 2018, for example, there was a major power outage that left approximately 800,000 people without electricity for several hours. In addition, tourism is down this season, which makes up approximately 6 percent of Puerto Rico’s economy, The New York Times reports.

That’s not all. As large stores like T.J. Maxx and major malls such as Plaza las Americas and the Mall of San Juan continue to open their doors, boutiques will have more competition again.

Against all odds and on different parts of the island, however, survivors after Hurricane Maria continue to make it work despite everything that’s happened. There are still independent boutiques standing and open for business, ready to dress customers.

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