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Iconic Lower 9th Ward storefront leans on community to weather coronavirus troubles

“One lady, she was stealing meat,” he recounted. “I caught her. Instead of me calling the police, I gave her a broom and I told her to sweep up around the store."

Burnell Cotlon was born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward. After serving more than a decade overseas in the Army, he came home after Hurricane Katrina to find his neighborhood wiped out from the floodwaters.

Struck by the devastation, he made it his life's mission – and used his life's savings – to open a grocery store, sweet shop and laundromat in the still-struggling neighborhood that had none of those things.

“I found my purpose,” Cotlon said. “My purpose in life is service. That's why it's such an easy transition to serving our country to serving my community. And it's even more so now.”

With help from his wife Keasha, Cotlon’s store – Burnell’s Lower Ninth Ward Market – remains up and running during the coronavirus pandemic. He’s healthy and his shelves are stocked. But now the virus is indirectly threatening his years of hard work.

“It's so many people that's hurting here in the Lower Ninth Ward,” he said.

With the city on emergency shut-down over the past month, Cotlon has seen many of his regular customers lose their jobs. Others are barely scraping by. Some have asked if they can buy food on credit. Others have resorted to more desperate measures.

“One lady, she was stealing meat,” he recounted. “I have cameras everywhere, so I caught her. Instead of me calling the police, I gave her a broom and I told her to sweep up around the store.”

“She cried. She apologized to me. And I said next time you need something, just come to me, let me know. And if I'm able to help you, I will.”

Now Cotlon finds himself stretched to the brink, frequently collecting IOUs in a credit ledger instead of getting paid in cash. Tragically, one customer with a $70 tab died from the virus.

“He had pre-existing conditions and he ended up passing,” Cotlon said. “His next-door neighbor came and told me about it. But I have no regrets. I would do it all over again. He was a good guy.”

When Cotlon established his store in Katrina’s wake, he was chronicled periodically in the local and national news. Celebrities helped with early donations when the store was just a dream.

Then last week, his recent struggles hit the Washington Post. As the story circulated, people from all over the city began stopping by to contribute in any way can: cash, supplies, clothes, food for the grocery shelves.

“I lost my part-time job because of this damn virus, but I still feel very fortunate and so I thought maybe I need to give a little back,” said Marvin Schexniyder, who came from the nearby Holy Cross neighborhood.

Lydia Barousse and her husband Danny Garbarino came from Uptown New Orleans to donate cash.

“I was so touched by the fact that he was trying to keep his store open and he has so many customers and friends who were no longer able to pay,” Barousse said. “I wanted to donate to him because he provides such a wonderful service to the community and this is the backbone of New Orleans."

A steady stream of donors drove up Monday. With each one, Cotlon grew emotional with thanks.

“Air hugs. Air hugs,” he said to one donor, gesturing from six feet away “It’s phenomenal.”

Some donors were complete strangers. Others were familiar faces from the neighborhood, like Antoine Turner.

“I was here through Betsy in '65, five blocks away on Rocheblave,” Turner said. “Got out in a helicopter. Me and my momma, and my momma had nine children.”

With his childhood home decimated by Katrina, Turner built a new house on Tupelo Street. He now works for another hard-hit business, Bywater Bakery, and he came to Burnell’s bearing fresh-baked bread.

“This neighborhood’s like a family, people helping people,” he said. “A lot of people think we're weak, but we're strong. No matter what we go through, trials and tribulations, we're always going to be strong. The Lower Nine is always going to be strong.”

Eventually, the power of the Internet fund-raising and the goodwill of strangers kicked into high gear.

Kelly Orians, a local attorney and activist, said her network of friends from far and wide saw the story and wanted to donate. She showed up Monday with an  envelope of cash.

“I just wanted to give this from all of us,” she said. “In about four hours we brought in close to three-thousand dollars.

That's from people all over the world.”

Cotlon was taken aback.

“It's a blessing,” he said. “That's the only way I can find to say it.”

Cotlon is a proud man, but he gladly accepts the generosity. Not only does it keep him afloat during these difficult times, but it inspires him to give back even more.

“It touches my heart because I do need it. Extending credit, it has hurt, to be honest. I was a little bit behind on my mortgage. But it's my purpose. I have to help my community.”

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