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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, we'll visit a family-owned store in Boston that's struggling to stay open. In our series on how businesses are coping with the recession, NPR's Tovia Smith visits a house-wares store called Bowl & Board.

TOVIA SMITH: Mark Giarrusso didn't need the government to tell him the economy was in a recession. He could tell by his shower curtains.

Mr. MARK GIARRUSSO (Owner, Bowl & Board, Brookline, Massachusetts): Our shower curtain business is like our canary in the coal mine, because the first thing people need when they move into a new apartment is a shower curtain.

SMITH: Giarrusso says he's always sold hundreds of them; that is, until a few months ago.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: All of a sudden, it just froze. Stop. No turnover. People aren't moving.

SMITH: Giarrusso says it may be the bleakest moment in the 40-plus years since his father first opened the store called Bowl & Board in Cambridge. The business became an institution in Harvard Square, selling its eclectic mix of earthy and trendy house-wares, and spawning new stores in Martha's Vineyard, Providence and Brookline. Things were so busy Giarrusso and manager Mara Delarossa say they could barely keep up.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Remember? You were stressed. How can I help you, you know?

Ms. MARA DELAROSSA (Manager, Bowl & Board, Brookline, Massachusetts): No, I remember.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: All you heard was the stairs - buh-buh-buh-buh, buh-buh-buh-buh - up and down the stairs.

Ms. DELAROSSA: Oh, my God, yeah.

SMITH: And now?

Mr. GIARRUSSO: You see? I'm here with my dog, hanging - I mean...

SMITH: No one's here.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: It's unbelievable. Crank up the music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GIARRUSSO: The fewer people we have in the store, the louder I play the music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: Music, marketing - Giarrusso's even got his staff using mind games to try and boost sales and spirits.

Unidentified Bowl & Board Employee: Have you heard about our sale?

Unidentified Female Shopper #1: No, first time, I'm looking around.

SMITH: But Bowl & Board's news is bad. Sales have sunk 30 percent, and Giarrusso has cut to the bone, slashing everything from employees to their health insurance. He's even started giving customers their purchases without a bag.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I trained all my employees that the motion is, create it like it's not an option. Wrap it up, here you go, and go right onto the next customer.

SMITH: Ultimately, Giarrusso knows the nickel-and-dime-ing isn't going to do it. He's seriously behind in rent at two of his three stores, and he's late with many of his vendors, who are now refusing to sell him more product until he pays up.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: How are you?

Unidentified Female Shopper #2: Good. Would you have a curtain rod for a bathtub?

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Yeah, we should. We did.

We're at a very dangerous moment, where your lack of inventory starts affects your sales.

I don't see - yeah, we're out.

Unidentified Female Shopper #2: OK.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Sorry about that.

Unidentified Female Shopper #2: That's all right. Thanks.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: A month ago, I'd be screaming, where are the shower rods? You know, this is like milk for a convenience store. Don't want to be without, right?

SMITH: Today, however, it's just another of the many challenges of surviving a recession.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Hello, can I help you? Hi, good.

SMITH: Once again, it's a vendor looking to collect.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I know, but Margaret, you know what - what do you think I'm going to say? You think I'm going to call you and say, hey, we're not going to pay you? All right, you know, hey, we need trust, right? You know, I'm starving, too.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: These days there's no such thing as a grace period.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I'm getting barked at three days late.

SMITH: Never used to get that.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: No. And there are people going out of business on them, so they're like, I apologize, but it's - we're nervous.

SMITH: They're panicked.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Yeah. Yeah.

SMITH: The prospect of having to close himself has kept Giarrusso up at night. His Brookline store is hemorrhaging money, but he hates to even think about shuttering or shrinking the family business his dad built from nothing.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I've got to keep - I've got five brothers and sisters to answer to and my dad. I've got to keep - someone's got to keep Bowl & Board going.

(Soundbite of table saw)

SMITH: Another way Giarrusso is trying to gin up business is with custom orders.

(Soundbite of wooden board on table)

SMITH: One customer wants a butcher-block cart cut smaller. Another wants lights put into a glass cupboard.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: These are all things where we used to just say, no, don't have, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: But now, you chase it.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: That's all we have to do to survive; I'm all right with it.

SMITH: As it gets closer to Christmas, however, Giarrusso's jaunty manner starts to wane. The landlords have just raised his rent 30 percent in Brookline, and he's locked into a four-year lease.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: They're charging too much money for what this is. A cell-phone store can justify these kinds of numbers and a bank, and any of these banks are being bailed out. It's like, get real.

SMITH: After agonizing about it for weeks, Giarrusso finally cracks.

Mr. JERRY CAMPLOR (Realtor): Hey.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: What's up, Jerry?

Mr. CAMPLOR: How are you?

SMITH: He comes to ask his realtor Jerry Camplor(ph) to start looking for someone else to take over his lease if the landlords won't give him a break on the rent.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: If it gets ugly, then I say, all right, see you later. I pull out end of December, and you put the big signs up and just really push it.

Mr. CAMPLOR: Are you really considering doing - you'd lock the door as of December?

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Yeah, I can't get emotional over it. There it is. It's cut and dry. It's croaking me.

Mr. CAMPLOR: Right.

SMITH: Outside the realtor's office, however, Giarrusso is less guarded and concedes he's still slightly tormented by the prospect of closing. Then, as if on cue, his Blackberry buzzes with news.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Ann Taylor closing 117 stores; Mervyn's, bankruptcy; Circuit City, bankruptcy; Shoe Pavilion, bankruptcy.

SMITH: It's distressing, but oddly, also reassuring.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: It makes me feel better, not - you know, you always think you did something personally wrong. You know, you always - am I doing - I'm always questioning. I'm hard on myself.

SMITH: But that tells you it's not you.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

SMITH: Giarrusso's hoping the big-box stores' closings will mean more customers for little guys like him and he'll be able to stay open. It may happen, but even Giarrusso says he wouldn't really want to bet the store on it. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Tovia will continue to check in with Mark Giarrusso and his business, and you can learn how other small businesses are faring by going to npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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