Business is down at Nancy Gibson's new Victorian gift store and today she said she feared that customers are avoiding this historic shopping district because of a fire that destroyed six downtown buildings two weeks ago.

"The fire has really affected our business," she said. "Customers are confused about the situation in Ellicott City."

Gibson was one of several merchants who joined Howard County officials at a news conference here today to sidetrack possible perceptions that the fire has hampered shopping or closed any of the other 128 stores in this historic mill town.

Those perceptions worry area merchants, who ring up the majority of their annual sales during the crucial Christmas season, according to officials.

"To even slightly insinuate that we've folded is ridiculous," said Debbie Brown, who owns the Kiva Gallery, a Native American art store on Main Street.

The spectacular fire, which raged through the early morning hours of Nov. 15, gutted seven businesses and left homeless nine people who lived in apartments above the stores. Today a massive pile of rubble remains, but the sidewalks are clear, streets are open, and according to merchants, there is plenty of parking.

Residents said it was the worst calamity since floods from tropical storm Agnes devastated the city in 1972. The downtown area, where buildings date to the early 1800s, had slowly rebuilt since the storm into a thriving district of antique stores, restaurants and trendy shops.

Roger D. Morino, who owned three buildings and an art gallery lost in the fire, said contractors will haul away the rubble this week. A section of the county landfill is being set aside so owners and former residents can search for salvageable items.

Two of the seven businesses displaced by the fire have already reopened at new locations, and other store owners said they hope to do the same in the downtown area if possible.

Meanwhile, downtown merchants are moving ahead with the Christmas season. "You're not going to find old-time Christmas hospitality like you find in Ellicott City," said Gibson. "Especially this year."