LITTLE Clarendon Street is “teetering on the brink” as traders face their toughest challenge in more than 20 years, it was claimed last night.

Two independent stores in the Oxford Street, Habibi and Inspires Art Gallery, have closed in the past three weeks.

Meanwhile, others are now considering their future, with worried owners warning of a domino effect if the situation continues.

Lacy’s clothing shop has announced it will soon be shutting up for good, with the owner of the Sylvester gift shop considering whether to carry on.

The recession, sky-high rents, bad weather and gas mains repairs in the street and around the corner in Walton Street have all been blamed for the crisis.

Last night shopkeepers urged people to support the remaining 18 independent businesses in the street or risk losing them forever.

Sue Rosser has run Lacy’s for 25 years, and said 23 of those were good.

She added: “I’m devastated to be going. Some of my customers have burst into tears when I’ve told them. The loyalty in this area is so strong.

“But there’s nothing I can do. The situation is absolutely dire, the worst I have ever known it.

“Who’s going to want to open a shop in this area now? All they have to do is talk to the traders to discover the real picture.

“A number of shops are teetering on the brink, as is the area as a whole. People need to start supporting their local independent shops, otherwise they will be lost forever.”

Jill Morgan, who owns the Sylvester gift shop, said soaring rates and a drop in footfall means she may not renew her lease.

She said: “I don’t have any staff at the moment, because I can’t afford to employ them.

“The gas works mean we now only open four days a week and I really don’t know if we will stay here.

“It’s a joke. The business rates for this shop are about four times more than I pay for my house, yet here you don’t even get your rubbish collected.”

Little Clarendon Street was once known as “the village within a city”.

Many of the shops originally opened in the mid-1800s in the downstairs rooms of houses lining the street.

Matty Phillips, 27, works at Run Oxford sportswear store said the business was struggling.

He said: “There are still people coming in, but not as many as before. The bad weather before Christmas didn’t help and business just hasn’t picked up in the new year.”

Julie Cook, who runs Blue Amigo Graphics, said: “People just don’t browse around the shops any more, at least not along here. The weekends are now very quiet, which isn’t good for us because the bulk of our business comes from footfall, not online.”

Max Mason, owner of the Big Bang restaurant, in Walton Street, added: “There’s no doubt this area is in crisis.

“We’re quite lucky, because our customer numbers are okay, but the independent shops are dropping like flies.

“This is a vital part of the city and people need to start supporting the shops here if they want to preserve it.”

City council spokesman Louisa Dean said that the Government set the level of business rates every five years.

She said: “The money collected is paid into a central pool and the Government then gives each council a share of this money.

“The money is then used to help to pay for the services that the council provides.”