Small business owners have a hard enough time getting customers in the door. But the merchants of West Washington Boulevard in Venice, Calif., had an even tougher time because there are several other Washington streets or boulevards around Los Angeles.

"I'd given directions to enough people through the years to be very frustrated," said Carol Tantau Smith, who has been selling jewelry and gift items on the boulevard for about eight years.

Two years ago, Tantau Smith helped spearhead a successful drive to rename the street Abbot Kinney Boulevard, in honor of the wealthy landowner who founded Venice and built canals resembling their Italian counterparts in the early 1900s.

The name change was the catalyst for an overall effort by business people to spruce up the district in hopes of boosting business.

Changing the character of a neighborhood isn't easy, but business owners nationwide are teaming up to rub out graffiti, clear trash from vacant lots and brighten their surroundings.

Every dollar invested in fixing up your business district can generate up to $17 in additional income, according to Matt Hussman, a program associate for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington. Over the past 10 years, the Trust's Main Street Center has helped 661 communities from Boston to Hollister, Calif., revitalize their commercial streets.

"The projects across the country have generated thousands of dollars and created thousands of jobs," Hussman said.

Involving local residents who shop in your store is critical to ensuring the success of any revitalization plan, said Mark Futterman, director of urban design and planning for Urban Innovations Group in Los Angeles. He also recommended contacting local city planners and politicians to gain support.

Futterman, who chairs the urban design committee for the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said AIA chapters around the country can serve as resources for business owners seeking help.

Redevelopment experts say what is happening along Abbot Kinney Boulevard is typical of revitalization projects elsewhere. Once the physical area is improved, rents go up and the caliber of businesses generally improves.

Although the street is still tricky to find, the feeling along Abbot Kinney Boulevard is that business is perking up. "It just feels different," said Tantau Smith. "There is a real energy."

Within five short blocks, visitors can find a plumber, travel agency, grocery store, liquor store, barber and beauty shops, a kick-boxing school, several antique stores, a contemporary lighting gallery, a vintage clothing store, a myriad of art galleries and a millinery shop.

Dozens of palm trees are due to be planted along the parkways to soften the harsh lines of the older brick and concrete buildings.

"The quality of merchants is a clear cut above what we've had here before," said Richard Rosenthal, principal broker and real estate consultant for Richard Rosenthal and Associates. "The energy along the boulevard is created by the rehabilitation and new construction."

Sunya Currie, a jewelry designer and antique dealer, bought the old Elk's Club building on Washington Boulevard in 1968. In the 1970s, she ran her antique business in the airy space. In 1981, when the boulevard's energy reached a low ebb, she moved to Beverly Hills.

Currie returned to Abbot Kinney Boulevard in September, determined to be part of the renaissance. "I just had a feeling this area was ready to take off," said Currie. "There is a feeling of the original Venice here, with artists living and working in the same space."

Lori Henle, a modern-day milliner who specializes in traditional techniques, said she is very busy with retail customers when she opens her door on Saturday and Sunday.

She moved her studio to Abbot Kinney Boulevard in July and is about to move into an apartment behind her workshop.

"Everybody on the street is really pulling together," said Henle, who worked as a fashion stylist before turning her skills to hat making. "I'm just happy to be down here."

Jane Applegate welcomes letters and story suggestions from readers. Please write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.