When riots broke out in Ferguson and Dellwood last year following the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown-Darren Wilson case, Juanita Morris' business of 28 years burned to the ground.
In one night, Morris lost the building that housed Fashions R Boutique and almost all of her inventory. But she vowed to rebuild, even in the face of what she called “some dark days.”
“See, I started with nothing, so I know how to build from nothing, so what I did is I just kept the faith and said, ‘If I have to do one suit at a time, one shoe at a time, one necklace at a time, one hat at a time, I’m going to rebuild,’” she said.
After nearly a year in a temporary location, Morris recently reopened her boutique in a 6,000-square-foot building at 11833 New Halls Ferry Road in Florissant. The store boasts large display windows showing off dresses and purses, a full wall of hats, and a room dedicated just to shoes. Morris has even reserved a space for shoppers’ companions to wait, complete with large couches and flat screen TVs.
Another new feature she is quick to point out: a track-like, circular pathway that guides guests through her large show room full of merchandise.
“I made a pledge that I was going to rise from the ashes and I rose from the ashes,” she said.
But Morris said she didn’t do it alone. She said she relied on her husband and four sons. She called her store manager Bertha and alterations tailor Sylvia her “backbone.” Loyal customers put in special orders and Morris put that money back into the business; other patrons chipped in to help in the rebuilding process.
On top of that was the financial support Morris said she received from local donors like Ameren and Believers Temple. A GoFundMe account was set up for her store generated donations from across the country, and the professional fraternity Phi Beta Sigma also donated $20,000.
“Plus with the insurance money, it was an easy process for me, but a lot of hard work,” she said.
But she said there were some people who didn’t help her: “I did not get any support from local officials, not at all.”
The only local leader Morris said checked in on her was Dellwood Mayor Reggie Jones, who Morris said even visited her new store. Jones was among the first to call for regional and state assistance for business owners affected by the riots, holding a press conference the day after Thanksgiving last year.
By Morris’ account, that assistance didn’t come to the extent it was needed. She said the only state funds she received were for the demolition of her destroyed store.
This wasn’t the first time Morris said she has felt officials could have done more: she said officials did not do enough to protect local businesses during the unrest.
“But then I understand there was a lot of destruction, a lot of shooting and whatever was going on and I didn’t want anyone to lose their life over some merchandise that I could one day replace,” she said. “You can always replace merchandise, but you can never replace a life, so in a way I understood why, but I did not understand why we did not have the support of the (National Guard) to come down there and protect the place as we were told.”
The lack of such support from officials – namely in the form of funding – is why Morris thinks rebuilding by other affected business owners on West Florissant has been so slow.
“It was a slow process for me, so I would assume it would be a very slow process for them, and I don’t know what type of insurance or what type of support they had,” she said.
It’s part of the reason why Morris decided not to return to West Florissant.
“Until two months ago, my plan in my heart was to go back down on West Florissant in Dellwood, and it seemed to me like they were moving very slow,” she said. “No one else was building, and I did a survey with some of my customers and they just felt like, ‘I don’t know if I want to come back down in that area and shop’ because right now they are not building.’ And so it was very negative from them.’”
Morris decided to listen to her customers and go forward: “Dellwood was a good location for me, but sometimes we have to move.”
Still, Morris said her old stomping grounds will rebuild, and she urges other business owners to have faith.
“I believe it’s coming back. I feel so strongly about that. That’s why I was so determined to get back there, because the strip is in an excellent location,” she said. “I believe that area will come back, it just may take a little time.”
Morris said she hopes officials are more supportive going forward and suggests they meet with the merchants one-on-one to find out their needs and what can be done to “help you get back on your feet.”
Morris, too, is thinking about next steps. She’s holding an upcoming fashion show and benefit dinner to mark her store’s 29th anniversary. While her immediate plan to continue to focus on serving her customers and make her larger location even better, she does ponder the future: “Who knows? I might have a second location.”