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Consumer Concern 

Small Tucson businesses--except for those selling war-related wares--say the conflict has hurt them.

On Sunday, March 23--when at least 20 Americans lost their lives in Iraq, 50 were wounded and an unknown number of Iraqis perished--thousands of Tucsonans thronged Fourth Avenue for the city's annual rite of spring.

Undeterred by temperatures soaring way into the 80s, they came out to the Fourth Avenue Street Fair in tank tops and shorts to peruse homemade jewelry, check out batiked scarves and eat Thai meat on a stick. But far fewer of them were buying than usual, according to some merchants.

"They're out here, but they're not spending, not like normally," said Tucsonan Leiloni Kammerer, who was showing the glass art she markets under the name Leiloni Designs. Kammerer was so discouraged that she abandoned her booth for a chair on the shady sidewalk some 20 feet away.

Mark Taylor, a Tucsonan who was buying a small animal painting at Lynn Bear's Wildlife Designs, said merchants selling higher-priced wares were hurting. "A lot of people are out, but they're not buying," he said, echoing Kammerer. "Look how few are carrying bags."

He and his wife, Cindy Taylor, estimated they spent a modest $30 to $50 at the fair.

The proprietor of Betty's Dolls & Creations not only packed up early, she said she's never coming back. The Tucson woman, who declined to give her name, used to do a good business selling her $200 handmade porcelain dolls, since she started at the fair in 1996. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, she said, her receipts have dropped by two-thirds.

"I'm not doing this anymore," she said as she wrapped a delicate doll in tissue paper and cardboard. "I'm retiring. I'll just do it out of my house."

Over at Park Place Mall on Saturday, March 22, the scene was the same, with shoppers crowding the stores. At least in the formal dress department at Dillard's, sales were strong. More than a dozen teenage girls were trying on sparkly Cinderella dresses glittering in satin and chiffon. One disappointed customer enacted a perennial pre-prom ritual, stomping out of the dressing room near tears. The strapless black dress she was trying on hanging down at least 6 inches past her feet.

"I hate this!" she cried out. Sighing, the weary saleswoman mumbled to no one in particular, "I can't wait 'til prom season is over."

War or no war, girls were buying dresses for the big night, with price tags up to $149. Still, if prom wear is recession-proof--and war-proof--most retail merchandise is not. Marshall Vest, who directs economic and business research at the UA, said that the war is likely to slow down consumer spending.

"The impact of the war is on consumers and business decision makers," he said by telephone Friday, during the intense day of bombing dubbed "shock and awe." "People are glued to their TV sets. They're not shopping; they're not growing their businesses. Everything is on hold. Everyone is holding their collective breath. The economy is in neutral."

And depending on how long the war goes on, the effects on an already fragile economy could be worrisome.

"We're probably losing momentum," he added. "Whether it's long enough or deep enough (to trigger a recession) we won't have the answer for another year."

A few local businesses are seeing some profits from the war--or from anti-war sentiment. Antigone Books, the women's bookstore on Fourth Avenue, was tagged Friday and Saturday night with slogans attacking the peace posters in the store window. "Communist Terrorists" read one bit of graffiti. "Let's roll," said another.

The store's customers generally feel differently, salesperson Kate Street said. "We've been selling a lot of peace stuff, stickers, buttons and peace T-shirts. Business is going well."

In recent months, and "especially in the last two weeks," Antigone has seen an upswing in sales of books critical of U.S. foreign policy, Street said, including The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by Greg Palast and Gore Vidal's Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. Likewise, Reader's Oasis, an independent bookstore on Speedway, was "extremely busy" the week war broke out, said co-owner Lynn LaPlant.

"We have an activist section that's always popular," LaPlant said. "A big section is our Middle East section."

Noam Chomsky's 9-11 and Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States have sold briskly. But some readers are looking for light books to take their minds off the world's troubles. "People either want to escape," LaPlant said, "or to find out what's going on."

Locals determined to protect themselves against war and terrorism on U.S. soil have been flocking to Miller's Surplus, a Sixth Avenue merchant of military clothing and survivalist gear. Decorated with military banners--including a Rangers flag emblazoned with a skull and cross-bones and the legend "Mess with the Best, Die with the Rest"--the store runs CNN and Fox news continuously. On Friday, the day American TV viewers saw the shock and awe explosions over Baghdad in living color, the store sold seven gas masks at $99.99 apiece. Customers also bought full body "chem suits" to ward off chemical attacks.

"We're pretty brisk," owner James Clay said. Many of his customers are stocking up on first-aid kits, water containers and duct tape to put in their "bug-out bags."

"It's a military term," Clay said. "You pack a bag for survival if you're evacuating."

Business at Tucson Map & Flag Center on First Avenue has been surging courtesy of repeat flag customers.

"It's not like 9/11," weekend manager Karl Nelson said. "That was a total inundation of people looking for flags. Now people are getting new ones to replace the flags that have been wearing out."

Maps are also moving. The stores is selling close-up maps of Iraq, maps of the entire Middle East, and maps that show the Middle East embedded between Europe and Asia.

"A lot of people are coming in," Nelson said. "Nothing like a war to get people interested in geography."

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More by Margaret Regan

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