Slow Spring Exacerbates Woes For Retailer In the four decades that Bowl & Board has been in business, the early spring has always been the slow season. But this year customers have never been more scarce. Meanwhile, owner Mark Giarrusso continues to fight for survival through bankruptcy.
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Slow Spring Exacerbates Woes For Retailer

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Slow Spring Exacerbates Woes For Retailer

Slow Spring Exacerbates Woes For Retailer

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These have also been hard times for Bowl and Board, that's the Massachusetts-based houseware chain that we have been following through the recession. The family business was forced into bankruptcy earlier this year when it couldn't make the rent at one of its three stores.

Now, NPR's Tovia Smith reports pressure is mounting as Bowl and Board tries to renegotiate the rent at its other two locations.

TOVIA SMITH: In the four decades that Bowl and Board has been in business, the early spring has always been slow, but never as slow as this year.

Mr. MARK GIARRUSSO (Owner, Bowl and Board): We need some customers in here.

SMITH: Owner Mark Giarrusso and staffers, like Matthew Shinnick, have been trying some creative marketing to draw customers in, but to no avail.

Mr. MATTHEW SHINNICK (Clerk, Bowl and Board): We could be, you know, juggling fire and doing lap dances, and it wouldn't really matter.

SMITH: For Bowl and Board, the slowdown couldn't come at a worse time. After three months in Chapter 11, the business has to prove it's profitable now or it may be forced to liquidate. Giarrusso has already cut to the bone. Now, he figures his only option is to reduce the rent at his remaining two stores by some 20 percent.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I've run these numbers 10 times over. That's to survive.

SMITH: But Giarrusso is more than a little skittish about asking his landlords for a break. After all, it was a fight over rent that forced him to close one store and file bankruptcy in the first place. Now, he worries his remaining two landlords won't be any more flexible, especially in Somerville, where he is fighting over who's going to pay for a new door lock.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I mean, they are chasing me on a $119 bill. And next week, I'm going to ask them to drop the rent 1,000 bucks a month. We're not going to get anywhere.

SMITH: Giarrusso is already thinking about the worst and how he can get another job if he has to when he gets a letter from the bank that processes his credit card sales.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: This is, like, ridiculous. I don't even understand it.

SMITH: If you think your credit card is giving you a hard time, imagine if you were in bankruptcy.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: (Reading) We regret to inform that your merchant account will be deactivated due to deteriorating credit profile.

SMITH: Not only is the bank shutting him off in a month, but they're also demanding a kind of security deposit in the meantime of $40,000.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I'm getting burned out. It's going to be another fight to get a credit card company. I'm telling you right now, it's not going to happen. Who's going to open up a new account with a Chapter 11? It's not going to happen.

SMITH: Then, just when he thought it couldn't get any worse, Giarrusso gets word that his old landlord has just asked the court for an emergency hearing to force Bowl and Board to liquidate.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: She's saying we're depleting inventory a rate of 14 percent at this rate with no recovery to the creditors in six months. That's completely wrong.

SMITH: Having already slogged through the slow season, Giarrusso and bookkeeper Poli Paunova are not about to give up now.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: I have 44 years of history that show huge losses - January, February, March, April - and then we make hay, you know? The tractor's in the barn, and to liquidate stuff weeks before your season is crazy. It's dumb.

Ms. PAULI PAUNOVA (Bookkeeper): She's basically not giving us a chance, you know?

Mr. GIARRUSSO: It takes the wind out of your sails, that's all.

SMITH: It's now two weeks before Giarrusso is due back in court, and still no deals on his rent. He's in a meeting now with his Providence landlord, and his staff are on pins and needles as the session goes on twice as long as any one expected.

Mr. SHINNICK: Well, I'm hopeful that it's a good sign. Very nerve wracking. It is. Here he is.

SMITH: Here he is.

Giarrusso comes back to the store smiling.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: It was a wild meeting. It was great. It felt like we were on the same team, you know?

SMITH: Turns out the landlord is thinking outside the box, as Giarrusso likes to put it. He is willing to lower the rent a little now, if Giarrusso will pay more later. And the landlord is willing to trade some rent for merchandise. Not only that, but the guy is offering to help the store with marketing.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: Well, I like those guys. They are good guys and we're in business together. That's what we've come to realize, and they're going to work with us and going to make it happen.

SMITH: Then, literally hours after that meeting, there is more good news when Giarrusso gets another letter from that bank that processes his credit card sales.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: (Reading) Please be advised that we will not be deactivating your merchant account at this time.

SMITH: Overwhelmed, Giarrusso calls the name at the bottom of the letter to say thank you.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: You have no idea. You've just saved a lot of headaches and potentially saved this company right there with that.

SMITH: It will turn out to be a really good week. Days later, Giarrusso comes close to a deal with the landlord in Somerville. It's not everything he was hoping for, but for the first time in months, Giarrusso says he is feeling the wind back in his sails.

Mr. GIARRUSSO: We've got over enough hurdles. We still have a lot of hurdles to get over, but can see the finish line, potentially. Of course, it's up to the economy, but I have more confidence. You know, it's just like, we can do this.

SMITH: It's a good place to be, as Giarrusso heads back into bankruptcy court. Tomorrow, he'll be asking the judge to let him keep going in Chapter 11. And in a couple of weeks, he hopes to be back showing the judge how he plans to get out of bankruptcy protection and still pay his creditors more than they'd get if he had to liquidate.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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