NPR's Tovia Smith has been following the economic fortunes of Bowl & Board, a family-owned chain of housewares stores in New England. This is her eighth story about the business. Read the series here.
When Bowl & Board finally succumbed to the recession this fall — after 43 years in business — it was a bit anticlimactic. Owner Mark Giarrusso closed the Somerville, Mass., store one night, surrendered his keys, and it was done.
After teetering on the edge for more than a year, the housewares chain was officially bankrupt.
"We tried. We legitimately tried to keep going," Giarrusso says. "But it just didn't work out."
He taped a handwritten note to the front door that read: "Sorry, closed for good. Thanks so much for 43 great years."
"Oh, no! That's so sad," exclaims Jenna Dasilva, tugging at the locked doors a few days later. "I love this store."
Liquidating The Business
Meanwhile, Giarrusso stands inside watching a crew of accountants and liquidation specialists swarm through his store seizing computer hard drives, office files and cash from the safe. They are part of a team put together by a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, who will decide how to liquidate the business.
"I have 100 questions," Giarrusso says, following one of the guys. He starts asking what will happen to everything, from the special-order sofa that a customer is waiting for, to the new shoes that Giarrusso left under his desk the day he closed.
He is instructed not to take anything from the store without explicit permission. And the team begins to compile an inventory for a going-out-of-business sale.
For several weeks, every last bit of merchandise is pulled from the basement and piled up on the floor, from Halloween candy dishes and Christmas candlesticks, to apple peelers and armoires.
The Last Sale
An e-mail blast announcing the final sale goes out, flyers go up around town, and Giarrusso sits down to record a new message on the store's answering machine.
He writes down a few lines, crosses them out and starts again. Then, he drops his head in his hands, unable to find the words.
"I can't do it!" he says. "How do you do the last message after 43 years?"
On the morning of the sale, crowds start lining up an hour before opening.
"At 75 percent off, I'm sure I'll find something," says 59-year-old Jean Talarico, who's come in search of a deal.
The sale turns out to be something of a mix between a bargain bonanza and a wake.
"I'm heartbroken," says shopper Ellen Thompson. "I shopped here 30 years ago as a student. And a wall shelf [that I bought here] is in my baby's room, and my baby is now 17."
Maria Dantzer, another customer, says she bought a rocking chair here that she used to nurse her second child. "It's emotional," she says.
Carla Leon, a lawyer who works nearby, says, "There are not too many places left like this, where you can go and get things that are made in the U.S, and not just imported crap."
As sad as it is, for Giarrusso, the outpouring is also oddly uplifting.
"This right here," he says, pointing to the long lines and the hustle and bustle. "This is how a Saturday was three years ago — every Saturday!"
The Retail Sport
Giarrusso runs from one customer to the next, barking out prices and talking up the merchandise. He's suddenly hit his stride again, just as he's running his store out of business.
"This is what I'm going to miss," he says. "The sport of retail; just generating the dollars!"
It doesn't seem to matter that every dollar Giarrusso is generating now goes not to him, but to pay off his old landlord, whose hardball tactics forced him into bankruptcy in the first place.
"I'm not looking at that. I've blocked that out," Giarrusso insists.
Shopper Susan Specter, a social worker who works in an office upstairs, says, "I think it's too sad for him to take it in right now. I don't think that it has sunken in for him yet that this is it for him — that this is the end for his business and his family business."
Every once in a while, Giarrusso looks at the crowd and can't help but have second thoughts about closing. If he had just stuck it out a little longer, could he have made it?
"We were that close," he says, pinching his fingers together. "Like that close!"
But Giarrusso reminds himself that sales remain down, rents are still going up, and Ikea is about to open nearby.
"You know, it hurts," he sighs. "But it's just the end of an era."
As the sale winds down, the discounts go deeper, drawing in unabashed bargain hunters.
"You kind of feel like it's not right to take advantage of their misfortune," says customer Andrea Meyer. "But we're all feeling the pinch."
By the end of the day, eight Bowl & Board employees will be unemployed. That's the part of closing that hurts Giarrusso the most. But he's trying to avert an even bigger disaster. He compares his business to piloting an airliner with a bomb on board.
"I just want to bring it down smoothly on the cornfield so no one gets hurt," Giarrusso says. "It's not a happy ending. But if I kept going further, it was going to get worse."
Giarrusso is pretty confident he'll be OK. He's already got a part-time job coaching lacrosse, and he's talking about a new gig selling eco-friendly packaging. He's not ruling anything out.
Times may be tough, but Giarrusso is an eternal optimist. He's even asking about buying back the Bowl & Board name. "You never know," he says.
Giarrusso may have run up against the buzzer today, but there's always another game tomorrow.