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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Now, the latest in a story we've been following about the struggles of keeping an independent family-owned business afloat. The Massachusetts housewares chain Bowl & Board has suffered from sluggish sales and rising rents. And it was forced to file for bankruptcy protection.

NPR's Tovia Smith picked up the story as Bowl & Board was making some tough decisions.

TOVIA SMITH: It's pretty safe to say, there was no one among the hundred thousand plus college kids in the Boston area who was more looking forward to this fall's back to school then Mark Giarrusso.

Mr. MARK GIARRUSSO (Owner, Bowl & Board): This weekend could be a phenomenal weekend. I'm fired up in the morning.

SMITH: Back to school is basically Christmas to Giarrusso, who does most of his business selling students and 20-somethings everything from shower curtains to kitchen tables. He'd been teetering on the edge since last year, when he fell behind on rent and one of his landlords sued him, forcing him into bankruptcy protection. Since then, Giarrusso and his lawyer Marty Desmery have been in and out of court fighting the landlord who's trying to trying to make him liquidate.

Mr. MARTY DESMERY (Lawyer): She has the scorched-earth, bring-the-house-down kind of agenda. You know, I'm the one with a big flamethrower in my hand, so you better offer me something to make me put this flamethrower down.

SMITH: But Bowl & Board emerges from court still alive and Giarrusso gets the judge's okay to keep working on a reorganization plan and keep running his other two stores.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Hey Ryan(ph), do you have check-and-stock on an item?

SMITH: Now, it's all about driving sales.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I need two red.

SMITH: And cutting costs. Giarrusso got both his remaining landlords to defer some rent until next year. Now, he's also trying to get a sandwich shop or another merchant to move in and help with his rent. And he's looking to do a little moonlighting to make some extra cash.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Where I'm at right now is a whole lot of balls in the air. And I got to get something to land to survive because it comes down to the rent.

SMITH: Then out of nowhere a big break. The old landlord who sued him has finally softened and is willing now to make a deal on the back rent.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I get the email on my phone. I look at it. It's about 18,000 upfront. Okay, I'm looking to borrow 20.

SMITH: Tapped out himself and unable to get a bank loan, Giarrusso reluctantly turns to his family for help. His dad, who started Bowl & Board 44 years ago, is willing to put up some cash. It weighs on Giarrusso heavily, but he agrees to take it. And it starts to look like things will be fine as long as the back-to-school crowds show up.

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, how cute is that?

SMITH: By late August, Bowl & Board starts to get busier.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: There's a lot of people around.

Unidentified Woman #2: Anyway next time.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIARRUSSO: But they're not shopping, you see it, you hear it.

Ms. MELISSA VIERRA (College Senior): I'm going to probably come back for shower liners.

Ms. MEGAN BODAJLA (College Senior): I've got a lot of my stuff already though.

SMITH: College seniors Melissa Vierra and Megan Bodajla say they're skipping their usual back to school shopping spree this year.

Ms. VIERRA: I'm brining towels from home this year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VIERRA: Yeah, there will be a lot of borrowing from our family.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: It's tough. Slow.

SMITH: In early September, Giarrusso decides to run a few sales which do give him a boost, but don't draw in the traffic he needs.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: We waited, we waited, Labor Day so, so. We waited and we waited. It wasn't happening.

SMITH: Then just days before he's due back in court to file his reorganization plan and formalize the loan from his father, Giarrusso gets cold feet.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I was in go mode, but then I had to be sure. I was looking to borrow money to put into this pot, I had to be sure that - I wasn't going to take the money. There's no way.

SMITH: So, just two days after he had new lights installed in his store and was rushing hard and fast, as he says, for the goal, Giarrusso does a 180 midfield and signs papers bumping Bowl & Board from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, to Chapter 7 liquidation.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: It's sad. But in my conscience, the game had to be turned off.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Hi.

SMITH: I'm so sorry.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: It's a bit of relief.

SMITH: The waiting and limbo are finally over.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: We'd like to thank all of our loyal customers over the years from the newest students this fall to those that have been with us for decades…

SMITH: In the minutes before his computer system is shut down, Giarrusso manages to blast a quick email to his customers.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: …44 years, our family is grateful to all the vendors, shoppers, artisans and staff for a very good ride. Sincerely, Mark Giarrusso. It's like the guy who's stabbed in the chest in an accident or car accident or whatever it is, you don't really have a long story to tell (unintelligible). Tell my wife and kids I love them, right?

SMITH: It's not the happy ending he was looking for. But Giarrusso says, this was about avoiding a really tragic ending where he might have taken his father or others down with him.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: If I kept going further, it was going to get worse.

SMITH: You always use a sports analogy, so what's the analogy here?

Mr. GIARRUSSO: That's a tough one because you know how I think: you don't quit. Thunderstorm. That's the only time that I would get off the field - thunder and lightning.

SMITH: This is thunder and lightning.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Yeah, someone was going to hurt. You know, someone was going to hurt bad. It's just irresponsible to keep the door open. I wasn't going to do that. I can't.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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