ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. Christmas was lousy for retailers, and then for some, January simply was unsurvivable. NPR has been following the fortunes of one housewares store called Bowl & Board in suburban Boston. When we last checked in, the 40-year-old business was struggling to stay open. NPR's Tovia Smith picks up the story.
TOVIA SMITH: Mark Giarrusso never thought Christmas was going to save him. Sales had been down for months, especially at his Brookline store, but Giarrusso did think that with a little more cash and a little more time, the store might survive.
Mr. MARK GIARRUSSO (Owner, Bowl & Board, Massachusetts): You want to unwrap that, wipe it down.
SMITH: He has spent months now bringing in new merchandise to Brookline and slashing prices to try and gin up business.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Four ninety-five to $3.45? Nah, you can go deeper - $1.75.
SMITH: But by mid-January...
(Soundbite of cash register)
Unidentified Woman: So, it's $4.20.
SMITH: Sales are still abysmal, barely covering the heat, let alone the rent.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Midday, we're at like $70 in Brookline. It's insane.
SMITH: Giarrusso has been calling his landlord, hoping to get a reduction on his rent. A year and a half ago, it went up 30 percent, and Giarrusso is now six months behind.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: You know, I try to be an honorable man, and, like, to owe someone money sucks.
SMITH: But Giarrusso and his landlord are at a stalemate. The landlord won't talk about a deal till Giarrusso pays off some of his back-rent. But Giarrusso won't pay the back-rent till he knows he has a deal for the full five-year lease.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: There's no customers in here. So, you know, we've been working with my landlord here.
SMITH: Feeling stuck, Giarrusso starts to prepare his Brookline staff for the worst.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: D-Day comes Tuesday.
Unidentified Woman: Wow.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Yeah, the perfect situation is we stay. Another situation may be we could be closed up as soon as next week.
SMITH: Meantime, Giarrusso continues to hack away at every expense he possibly can - both at work and at home.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Sylvia?
SMITH: How are you?
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Oh, yeah.
SMITH: Good to see you. I think I'll leave my coat on.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: There's no heat in this side of the house. There's just this little...
SMITH: Giarrusso and his three kids are huddled around a fireplace in their kitchen.
(Soundbite of wood being chopped)
SMITH: Chopping wood for the fire, Giarrusso can't help but laugh at the irony as he tosses in some scrap wood paneling that he pulled off the walls of what was once his flagship store in Cambridge.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: How's business? We're going up in flames - literally.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: Even Giarrusso's dad, Bill Giarrusso, who founded Bowl & Board 40-plus years ago, says this is the worst he's ever seen.
Mr. BILL GIARRUSSO (Founder, Bowl & Board): Oh, boy. Talking about it. I don't like to talk about it.
SMITH: The elder Giarrusso ran Bowl & Board through multiple recessions, several building fires and countless student riots. But that, he says, was easy, compared to dealing with rents that have been soaring now for years.
Mr. BILL GIARRUSSO: You can't - you can't do it. You're just working for the landlord. It's all they're doing. It's frustrating.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: I have a truck lined up to start pulling out tonight.
SMITH: With talks still going nowhere with his landlord, Mark Giarrusso reluctantly gets ready to call it quits. But at the last minute, an uncle, who's a big real estate guy in New York, convinces him to try negotiating one last time. Every landlord, the uncle says, is slashing rent just to get something rather than nothing. Giarrusso calls off his trucks and drafts a new offer, but he can't seem to get his landlord to return his call.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: It's driving me nuts. Stressful.
SMITH: Then, just when he thought it couldn't get any worse, Giarrusso gets an urgent call from his bookkeeper. All five of their bank accounts are suddenly empty.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: They cleaned out the business account - $28,974. They went into the money market account, commercial checking...
SMITH: All the bank will say is the money's been put on hold by court order, and they give Giarrusso the name and number of an attorney.
(Soundbite of phone being dialed)
SMITH: Giarrusso gets her on the phone.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: It's Mark Giarrusso at Bowl & Board. Well, not so good.
SMITH: Turns out, the attorney represents Giarrusso's landlord, who's legally frozen all his money because he hasn't paid his rent.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Well, the position you've taken now is to put Bowl & Board out of business. (Unintelligible) Non-responsive? I was calling you guys.
SMITH: Then, the real shock. The lawyer makes a passing reference to the lawsuit in place.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: What? Huh? Was I notified of this lawsuit? You say there's a lawsuit in place. Why wasn't I notified of this? I was served? With what? I never got anything. The only thing that...
SMITH: Turns out, all the legal papers were sent to an old address, starting more than a month ago.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Pissing me off.
SMITH: Giarrusso gets on the phone with his attorney, his big brother Roy.
Mr. ROY GIARRUSSO (Attorney): How much they got?
Mr. GIARRUSSO: They got everything. Basically, a hiccup away from being bankrupt right now.
Mr. ROY GIARRUSSO: You know, I think I need to have you talk to my buddy who does bankruptcy work.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Yeah.
Mr. ROY GIARRUSSO: I mean, we got to at least think about that option. I don't want you to keep on throwing good money after bad, you know?
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Yeah.
SMITH: But first, Mark insists, he wants to try and settle. Roy sends the lawyer an e-mail, offering most of the back-rent, but the lawyer e-mails right back.
Mr. ROY GIARRUSSO: Then she wrote, frankly, I don't think that's going to do it, but it's just my opinion. I'll let you know. Because she's saying, you know, even if I get 50 cents on the dollar in bankruptcy...
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Yeah, I hear you.
Mr. ROY GIARRUSSO: I might just take my chances in bankruptcy. You know, I'm going to try to convince her not to.
SMITH: And so begins Giarrusso's agonizing limbo. Meantime, he and his bookkeeper, Polina Paunova, start calling the dozens of vendors who have checks from his frozen accounts.
Ms. POLINA PAUNOVA (Bookkeeper, Bowl & Board): Hi, I'm calling from Bowl & Board. We just sent you a check for the full amount that we owe. Yeah - no, it's not really excellent...
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Margaret, it's Mark. You're going to get a check from us.
MARGARET (Vendor): I got it.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Please.
MARGARET: Thank you.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: You have to sit on that. There's trouble with our accounts.
MARGARET: Well, I don't - I gave it to the lady to deposit. I don't know.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Oh.
SMITH: Then, from his cell phone, more trouble.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Hey, Joe. When I have it, Joe. I got a situation on hand right now. It's a long story. I know you hate stories, but they attached...
SMITH: Now, it's the landlord from his Providence Store. The money for that rent is also in Giarrusso's frozen account.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Got to throw up.
SMITH: Squeezed now from all sides, Giarrusso desperately needs cash. Even if Brookline has to close, he doesn't want that store to take his others down with it. He gets his Brookline staff on the phone.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: Tom, we changed gears a little bit.
TOM (Employee, Bowl & Board): OK.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: I want to do a sale.
SMITH: An email blast needs to go out, Giarrusso says, and the sale signs need to go up.
Mr. GIARRUSSO: It's deal time, OK?
Unidentified Woman (Employee, Bowl & Board): OK. So basically, everything's on sale.
Mr. GIARUSSO: Yeah, make a deal.
SMITH: But Giarrusso knows even the best bargains may not entice buyers these days. So, after everything that's happened, he's actually come full circle to the same place he started. Like so many other retailers, he's desperately trying to get shoppers in the door. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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