Boarded up in Ferguson

Stores in a strip mall along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., are boarded up as a result of the demonstrations over the police shooting of Michael Brown. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times / March 2, 2013)

Barbershop owner Antonio Henley, a burly man in a smock labeled "Tony Da Boss," was surveying the few customers who had ventured in for haircuts, and the unusually large number of empty chairs. "My shop has never been this empty on a Friday," he sighed.

A few doors down, the windows at Yolo Boutique were covered over with plywood and a spray-painted sign: "Open! Black Owner!" it said. "You! destroying our business in the community is not helping. Stop the violence!"

This small strip mall — a cellphone store, a nail salon, a burger bar, the cheerful Prime Time Barber Shop — has been at the epicenter of protests over the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

By night, over the last two weeks, it has been the backdrop to surreal scenes of tear gas clouds, gunshot victims, riot police and marauding looters. By day, the mayhem gives way to shopkeepers with push brooms and business owners like Henley, fretting over how they're going to talk citizens into putting down their protest signs and sitting down for a haircut.

Now, the National Guard is pulling out of town, but nighttime protests have continued. No one is sure when this stretch of West Florissant Avenue will return to normal — or if anywhere in Ferguson can ever return to what it was before Aug. 9, when a white police officer shot Brown, who was black and unarmed, six times outside a crowded apartment complex.

At the barbershop, Henley, 44, faces the challenge of both luring his customers back and figuring out how to make up for two weeks of lost revenue.

Most of the proprietors at this narrow commercial strip say business is down more than 60%.

Sonny Dayan, whose cellphone business just down from Prime Time had its windows shattered and contents looted, has said he is determined to stay in business but can't risk getting his merchandise wiped out again. Damages and losses were estimated at $25,000.

"When can we go back to normal and get the people's trust back?" he said.

On Friday afternoon, the long turbulent nights had given way to sunshine. A lone protester — an elderly black man — walked by carrying a sign he'd fashioned from a piece of a cardboard box.

"Is the dream still alive?" it said.

For much of the last two weeks, Prime Time Barber Shop and the businesses alongside it have been the stage for a constantly shifting drama. The strip has been by turns shopping center, parade ground, riot zone, first-aid ward.

Police commandeered the barbershop at one point last week, hauling a female shooting victim inside and ordering the barbers into the street.

"Next thing we know, police officers in riot gear are all lined up out front and we're running with the crowd," said Thomas Bradley, who works at Prime Time.

Bradley, a bearded, lanky, 25-year-old joker, is also a paramedic. That night, he helped carry a man shot in the face with a rubber bullet to safety. He fashioned a makeshift splint out of tree branches for a woman wounded in the leg as she fled the tear gas.

One evening this week, as Bradley scanned scores of protesters filing past the barbershop, he spotted a young black man wearing a red, white and blue gas mask. The youth offered it for $10. The barber scoffed.

The youth wandered off, vowing under his breath, "I'm going to use this tonight."

A little after 8 p.m. only one of the strip mall businesses was still open: Ferguson Burger Bar & More, which unlike surrounding outlets, was doing a brisk business serving protesters, reporters and those who streamed in merely to watch the unfolding events.

The day before, a man had dashed in and grabbed $20 from the tip jar. Owner Charles Davis, 46, brawny and bearded, gave chase, but didn't recover the money.

This night, there was a 20-minute wait for fare that included okra, tripe, peach-glazed chicken wings and a "Garbage Burger" topped with bacon and fried egg.