The Lost Barrio has arisen from the ashes.

Nine months after a fire tore through a swath of the artsy warehouse district along the 200 block of South Park Avenue, gutting one shop and smoking out another, renovation work is almost complete. Now if only the economy could get turned around for the hip stretch of furniture stores.

"It was the most traumatic thing to ever happen to me," said Robert Gibson, owner of Explorations in Design, which featured handmade work ranging from Islamic art and rugs to tiled Moroccan tables, teak armoires and doors.

He said the fire started in a workshop at Gibson's store on Feb. 24, causing more than $1 million in damage. Gibson said one of his employees was working with linseed oil, which can spontaneously combust.

The Tucson Police Department never determined the cause or origin of the blaze and eventually closed its case, said Officer Linda Galindo, a police spokeswoman. But Gibson said his insurer saw it as an accident after doing its own investigation.

Gibson probably won't reopen his store but will instead likely lease the space to Southwest Interiors, a furniture store across the street and down the block. Much of his inventory was collected over the course of 30 years, and Gibson said that to replace it would be challenging in good times, let alone a recession when furniture has not been selling.

"What I had represented 30 years of contacts and collecting," Gibson said. "And I could probably go back to India and collect some things on consignment, but there is not a lot of retail going on."

So instead, he said, he's taken a cultural cue from the goods he used to sell.

"I quickly became a good Buddhist and detached myself from all of my possessions," he said.

Maybe that helped with Gibson's suffering, but it didn't get the word out that most of the stores in the Lost Barrio reopened within days of the blaze. Throw in that misperception with a sputtering, gasping economy and you have the makings of tough times in the high-end, hard-to-find, exotic, upscale furniture market.

"This month I've definitely been seeing a lot more people out here," said Carolyn Maloney, owner of Old Brazil, a neighboring store to Gibson's that was smoked out in the blaze.

"The fire never came into my store," Maloney said. "There was a lot of smoke. It definitely damaged part of my inventory."

Eventually she reopened in midsummer in a temporary location just down the block at 300 S. Park Ave. - which Gibson said he provided for free - but business remained slow. Maloney held a big sale over the summer to move her refurbished inventory, and she's thinking she probably will move into her original location after the Christmas season.

Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at 573-4178 or brodesky@azstarnet.com

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