MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Many businesses, large and small, are undergoing a very different kind of stress test - in bankruptcy court. Some will reorganize, others will have to liquidate. We've been following one troubled business, Bowl and Board. The Massachusetts-based housewares chain filed for Chapter 11.

As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, the retailer now has to prove its profitability to stay afloat.

TOVIA SMITH: An avid ice hockey and lacrosse player, Mark Giarrusso, tends to approach his business much as he does his sport. So, going into what he calls his store's do-or-die round, he's put on his game face.

Mr. MARK GIARRUSSO (Owner, Bowl and Board): At this point, I'm feeling like, bring it on, you know? We're a profitable business.

SMITH: Giarrusso filed for bankruptcy after he had fallen behind on rent at one of his stores and his landlord sued him and froze his bank accounts. He wants to reorganize, but the landlord's attorney, Rosemary Macero, has been pushing him to liquidate.

Ms. ROSEMARY MACERO (Lawyer): Our position is once that cash is gone, it's disappeared and we're never going to see it again because this business is in a failure mode…

SMITH: But by his do-or-die round, Giarrusso manages to eke out a breakeven month, and the judge gives Bowl and Board another 60 days. It's a clutch win for Giarrusso and his lawyer, Martin Desmery.

Mr. MARTIN DESMERY (Lawyer): You know, I mean, in bankruptcy, the name of the game is to live to fight another day. So…

Mr. GIARRUSSO: So, you got to push it up. Got two months to really push it up.

SMITH: But back in the store, that seems to be getting harder.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Hey, Dena(ph)?

DENA: What?

Mr. GIARRUSSO: What was yesterday's total?

DENA: Really low.

SMITH: Even as the warmer weather starts bringing out the pedestrians, and President Obama starts saying his economic stimulus plan is beginning to work, Giarrusso isn't seeing it.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: No way. Not in our world.

SMITH: April is looking even worse than the winter.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: It's dangerously slow.

SMITH: And it doesn't look like things will be picking up any time soon.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: My factories are my canary in the coalmine. What they produce is what I'm selling three to six months from now. And they're not producing. They're going part time, forced vacations - every single one.

SMITH: Usually, this time of year, Bowl and Board would be bulking up on new spring merchandise. But between the lack of customers and the pressure to show a profit, the store can hardly buy any new product to put out on the floor.

Ms. BECKY BOGUZIS: They're all the same. We just switch it around a lot.

SMITH: Bowl and Board's Becky Boguzis and Poli Paunova say they're even out of their staples.

Ms. POLI PAUNOVA: We did not have one glass left. There was nothing to show.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

SMITH: And when manufacturers call looking for orders…

Ms. PAUNOVA: No. No, not really. It's - yeah, I don't want to waste your time, you know, because we're probably not going to buy anything. So…

(Soundbite of saw)

SMITH: Still determined, Giarrusso is trying to make his own inventory. Downstairs in his woodshop he spends hours building special-order oak tables from…

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I wouldn't show the lady what her table is made out of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Well, let's just say he's re-purposing aged wood that he's harvested from his store that closed.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: These are like from the '70s. Remember oak was hot back then?

(Soundbite of hammering)

SMITH: And just like that, a heap of broken down display racks are reborn as brand new custom-built furniture.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: That one had a bunch of holes, so I just cut that groove off, cut it down, sanded it.

SMITH: Wow, look at that.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: That's like, 15 bucks I spent.

SMITH: And presto.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Make two tables.

SMITH: Which will each sell for nearly $500 of pure profit.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SMITH: Still, Giarrusso says he can't keep doing business with his hands tied.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: How I'm operating right now and I'm forced to operate this - I'm hitting singles, but I'm going to miss the homeruns, you know what I mean? The homerun will be, you watch, in May, you know, 300 people are going to be moving into apartments in this area looking for shower curtains. And I'm going to be saying, no, ah-dah-dah, versus, just - why not just order 144 shower curtains? We know we're going to sell it, but yeah.

SMITH: Giarrusso finally concludes there's really only one way left to make the numbers work and escape Chapter 11, and that's to reduce the rent he's paying at his remaining two stores. Having been there and tried that in Brookline, he is not too hopeful. But his lawyer, Marty Desmery, insists he talk to his landlords.

Mr. DESMERY: Well, you got to go down. You have to explain to them, okay, if you don't do this, we can't meet our budget. They pull the plug on the bankruptcy. Now, you're stuck with a storefront for the next however many months that it's going to be empty.

SMITH: Just six months ago, Giarrusso couldn't fathom closing even a single store. Now, there are days he can't imagine another minute staying open. He's already been hospitalized from the stress. He's given up more than half his salary and his three kids had given up everything from after-school sports to hot showers, since he can't afford to fix the water heater.

Giarrusso says it burns him up to think it all could have been avoided if his old landlord had just been willing to negotiate through a bad economy, instead of hiring a lawyer to play hardball.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I've had dreams just going to Rosemary and just saying, you know, get out of my face now. Just knock it off. I know that's bad, but seriously, when my kids are on my arm and say this is what you're doing. This is what you want to do?

SMITH: At one really low point last week, Giarrusso got so frustrated he actually called his lawyer and asked if it was possible to lay himself off. He figured he could still oversee the business while he got another job to support his family. The answer, as Giarrusso expected, was no. He is in this game, win or lose, until the clock runs out.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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