MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. As the economy has slumped, we have been checking in from time to time with a retailer that's struggling to stay afloat. When last we heard, the Massachusetts housewares chain Bowl Board had fallen behind on rent at its Brookline store. Now, with the landlord suing, the 40-year-old family business is on the brink of bankruptcy. NPR's Tovia Smith picks up the story.
TOVIA SMITH: Just about a week ago, Mark Giarrusso was still thinking he had things pretty much figured out. Yes, sales were too slow and rent was too high to make his Brookline store viable. But as Giarrusso puts it, that's retail. His other two stores were still squeaking by. And he thought if his Brookline landlord would just cut him some slack, he could weather the storm. But then everything changed when his landlord blindsided him with a lawsuit, demanding all the back rent and freezing all his bank accounts.
BLOCK: She's putting me out of business with this. What just went down is going to close the doors.
SMITH: Determined to not let his Brookline store take his other two down with it, Giarrusso offers to pay most of $80,000 in back rent, if the landlord would just let him off the hook for the three years left on the lease.
BLOCK: But they are going to nail me for the remainder of the lease, it's kaputz. Liquidate. Move on.
SMITH: After an agonizing wait, the landlord rejects the offer. His lawyer had suggested they could get more if Bowl Board went bankrupt.
BLOCK: It was a slap in the face, just ridiculous.
SMITH: Now furious and desperate for cash, Giarrusso calls his Brookline staff.
BLOCK: Hey, Mara.
BLOCK: It's game over.
BLOCK: My God.
SMITH: Then, at the store, Giarrusso begins a blowout effort to turn his inventory into cash.
BLOCK: I'll give you all those for $5.
U: Okay. We'll take them.
SMITH: A middle-aged man pulls a heap of fake fruit from a shelf marked 75 percent off. Everything has been priced to go.
BLOCK: From 143 down to 35.96.
U: Go ahead.
U: Oh, yeah.
SMITH: It's cash Giarrusso needs to save his other two stores. But still, every sale is like a kick in the gut.
BLOCK: Yeah, it's frustrating. It makes me feel like being taken advantage of. I hear it. I hear the chatter : They're having this sale. Go over there, you can talk him down another 10 percent.
U: And you said it was 80?
BLOCK: It's 75 percent off the original full price, so...
U: Would you give it to us for 60?
BLOCK: No way.
BLOCK: They were vultures - it was like vultures.
SMITH: Even store manager Mara Delarossa is having trouble not taking it personally.
BLOCK: It's kind of like, you know, buying a foreclosed house or something. Yeah, you're getting a really good deal but at someone else's loss.
BLOCK: It's brutal right now, I agree. But it's a tough time, and I'm also taking a huge loss.
SMITH: This customer, Marisa Carnivale, was recently laid off after 15 years as a manager at Fidelity. She had to sell her house, and is now bargain shopping in Bowl Board for the apartment she is now renting.
BLOCK: Of course, I feel bad. I feel very bad. But this is happening everywhere right now, and more and more businesses are going to end up that way.
SMITH: Indeed. Giarrusso's block, in the cultural and commercial heart of Brookline, is already dotted with dark storefronts.
BLOCK: I worry about how many empty places there are now (unintelligible).
SMITH: John Pergantis owns Party Favors, right next door to Bowl Board.
BLOCK: Footlocker's gone. Barnes and Noble left. There's two stores up there that are empty, on the right hand side of us, and there's a sushi place empty also - a little scary.
SMITH: When Giarrusso thinks about his store closing, too, he worries about the ripple even beyond the neighborhood, to the hundreds of local artisans he buys from.
BLOCK: This is not stuff that came on a boat from some factory on the far side of the world. It's just real people, and they put their heart into it, and, you know, like, this is putting food on their table and getting them by the next couple of months.
SMITH: And that's not to mention the five Bowl Board employees who will lose their jobs.
BLOCK: It's definitely tough. I don't know what I'm going to do.
SMITH: From manager Mara Delarossa to sales clerk Cheryl Mahaffey.
BLOCK: Who knows who has the jobs to offer, so you might see us at Starbucks.
U: I think that's the best you can do in this economy.
BLOCK: That's the hardest thing. It's real tough. That's what keeps me up at night.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
BLOCK: Good afternoon, Bowl Board.
BLOCK: Hey, Maria.
SMITH: Meantime, right in the midst of his own crisis, Giarrusso's sister Maria Metters, who owns the Bowl Board on Martha's Vineyard, is in trouble with her landlord as well. She's just learned she needs to pay all her back rent in 15 days or get out.
BLOCK: I don't have - we don't even - we can't even cover payroll. We didn't even make sales tax, Mark. We don't have any, any, any money.
SMITH: It's as if the world changed overnight. Suddenly, it's hard to sell an apple peeler in a store whose strategy for decades was, pile it high and let it fly.
BLOCK: Remember in like 2000, 2001, we didn't know what else to sell. Switchblades, yeah, $40 switchblades.
BLOCK: Didn't matter. It didn't matter.
BLOCK: Knobs, drawer pulls, decorative finials.
BLOCK: People would buy it. I mean, today, it's hard, isn't it? And I'm just standing here.
SMITH: Finally, after resisting the idea for days...
BLOCK: Mart, Mart, good to see you.
BLOCK: I mean, not so good to see you.
SMITH: Giarrusso sits down with a bankruptcy lawyer, Martin Dansmurray.
BLOCK: I'm going to need you to go through in detail your assets, your liabilities.
BLOCK: I have never thought, in my wildest dreams, this is where I'd would be.
SMITH: Giarrusso leaves his lawyer's four hours later, his head still spinning and his inside still in knots over what he calls the B word.
BLOCK: I was always taught that bankruptcy is just not an option. It's a weak way out, it's a quit. I don't want to quit.
SMITH: Giarrusso considers dipping into his retirement account to help the business but then, the final straw. The bank is about to recall his credit line, and Giarrusso's bankruptcy lawyer says he is out of options.
BLOCK: He's like, what you are going to do, Mark? You have no money. You can't even get money.
SMITH: In Brookline, Bowl Board's 75-percent-off sale has now become a sidewalk free-for-all. Customers rifle through plastic buckets of frames and candles and coffee scoops, leaving nothing behind.
U: Is it okay to take those plastic buckets, or do you want them?
SMITH: Finally, after more than a week of angsting about it and decades in the family business, Giarrusso reluctantly agrees to sign the papers sending Bowl Board into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
BLOCK: We were hours away from bust. I had to do this to stop that.
U: So you're really closing up today? This is your last day?
BLOCK: Four o'clock. All done forever.
SMITH: The store that took months to build out and fill up took just hours to strip down and clean out.
U: I mean, I can't believe how empty it is.
BLOCK: Not much left.
U: I can't believe it.
BLOCK: Right, guys?
U: All right.
BLOCK: Just keep rifling it into the Dumpster.
SMITH: Finally, exhausted, Giarrusso was ready to leave.
U: This is it.
BLOCK: The last turn. I fought hard for this place, real hard.
SMITH: Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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