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Dispatch / February 17, 2009

I was stuck in traffic with a broken tape deck, barely paying attention to the stupefyingly flat drone of NPR when I heard a story that made me want to carpet bomb the entire US. Just get it done with. Let nature start anew.

The segment was done on a small chain of upscale houseware stores in New England, called Bowl & Board. Like countless other small businesses all around the country, the chain had been operating on the brink of collapse for months. With fewer and fewer shoppers willing to dish out money for overpriced decorations, one of their chain’s locations started bleeding money, quickly fell behind on rent and brought the chain’s other still-profitable locations down with it. The landlord, a huge company called Capital Properties, Inc., based in New York City, got skittish about the backrent and sued Bowl & Board to get their money back. Being the respectable family business that it is, Bowl & Board immediately offered to empty out its bank account to pay the back rent in full. But with the store losing money, Bowl & Board would go bankrupt if they were forced to keep paying rent. So they made Capital Properties an offer. They asked to be let out of the three-and-a-half-year commitment they still had on their lease and, as a gesture of goodwill, offered to pay three months worth of rent on top of what they owed.

Bowl & Board was in a desperate situation. They made that much clear to landlord. But instead of taking the money and wishing Bowl & Board the best of luck in these tough times, the Capital Properties’ pack of lawyers decided to keep the store locked into the contract. They figured their boss would make more money if they pushed Bowl & Board into bankruptcy. That way, not only would back rent be recovered, but they’d also be able to liquidate the store’s inventory and cover most of the balance on the remaining lease.

It was a vicious, heartless move. Bowl & Board wasn’t Pottery Barn. The stuff wasn’t made in China, either. It was a family business that had the founder’s kids managing various stores and his grandkids working the back and making deliveries. All in all, they employed about 30 people in their stores and did business with 300 vendors right here in the US, many of them local artisans in the Massachusetts area.

When I phoned up Mark Giarrusso, the owner of Bowl & Board, to get his reaction, I expected to catch him brimming with hate, just like me. What did he think about his money-grubbing landlord trying to push his family out on the street? The bastards are deliberately fanning the flames of the recession, I said, muttering something about “lynch mobs” and “vigilante justice.” He brushed me off with a nervous chuckle.   “Well, you know, I don’t blame the landlord,” he said, soft-spoken and respectful. “I blame the system that lets this happen. You know, I’ll never go into business again with someone I can’t shake hands with. This is primal, caveman stuff. But it’s true. The landlord is sitting in NYC, he doesn’t know how closing the store will affect the community. We have no connection. To them, it’s just numbers on a page.” But as he explained how this bunk deal went down, it was clear that he was holding his anger in check. There was no disconnect here. His landlords knew exactly what they were doing.

It turns out that the story is not as simple as NPR reported. Bowl & Board was not just behind on the rent and getting sued for it. Giarrusso knew that the store would soon start lapsing on its payments and contacted Capital Properties to try to sublet the property or renegotiate his lease, lower the rent by 27% (which is what it had been until they jacked up the price one and a half years ago). He pleaded with them, but they wouldn’t have any of it. His landlord knew that unless something was done, and quickly, Bowl & Board would fall behind on rent. But that’s exactly what they wanted. Snooping around, they discovered that money could be squeezed out Bowl & Board’s inventory.  So instead of negotiating, the firm stonewalled him while it moved in for the kill. They got an attorney on the case and sent a court summons to an old, non-existent address. They wanted Giarusso to miss his court date; they were planning on it. His no-show made it much easier to convince the judge to freeze Bowl & Board’s bank account until they could get their money back. The whole chain had only $50,000 in the vault. It was chump change; but for Bowl & Board, it was life or death. No access meant no salaries for employees or squaring of accounts with vendors.

“These are difficult times,” Giarrusso told me. “Everyone is bending right now. I’m not making a killing as a retailer and those I work with know that. Some of my vendors are giving free freight. Everyone knows they need to take it on the chin until things get better.” But not Capital Properties. They’re actually trying to make money off other people’s misery.  Predatorial business is what they are all about. But they aren’t the only ones.

As Bowl & Board found a few weeks later, the filthy rich and their bulldog lawyers aren’t the only ones trying to make a poor man into a bum. The average American is always eager to help out.

Last week, Bowl & Board held a blow-out sale at their dying store to shore up cash. Customers swarmed the place to take advantage of the unbelievable deals, snapping up couches, chairs, vases, mirrors and all kinds of quaint home decorations, all for 75% off. Bowl & Board was counting on that much. But they grossly underestimated the voracious appetite of New England shoppers. The greed shocked the store’s employees. “They’re like vultures,” one of the distressed employees told an NPR correspondent, her voice was straining and on the edge of tears. “They’re getting a really good deal. But at someone else’s loss.”

Store workers looked on in horror as their greedy customers morphed from conscientious, polite New England liberals into rabid hyenas feeding at the carcass, snapping at each other, fighting and haggling with the clerks. Some of shoppers demanded they be allowed to carry off the cheap plastic bins that some of the items were placed in for display. Others didn’t bother hiding their annoyance when store clerks refused their ridiculous 90% off counteroffers. Somebody wanted the store to throw in some display shelves at no extra cost. Everyone knew the sale was a last ditch effort to keep the business afloat. But there was no sign of sympathy or good will. They smelled Bowl & Board’s desperation and moved in to tear off as big a chunk of meat as they could. Americans — especially stuffy New Englanders — never bargain at stores, because we’d be too embarrassed of getting laughed at. But all that changed at Bowl & Board that day. When you’re dealing with the mortally weak, bullying stops being demeaning and uncouth.

“What can I do? I’m in the same situation. Everyone is in the same situation. There’s going to be more of this,” said one shopper defensively. Her house had been foreclosed and now she was out and about shopping to decorate her new apartment. Her logic was brutally simple: I was screwed by my bank and need money. So I’m gonna do what I have to do any way I can, even if it means screwing someone who is as badly off as I am.

As I sat there in standstill traffic, looking around at the people sitting in their cars around me, I realized that this was the real face of American Depression. Forget all the bullshit sentimental talk of how Americans pull together in bad times There is no saccharine Steinbeckian redemption forthcoming. This is real life. And real life says you won’t get any help from your neighbors. Real life says that hard times bring out the worst of people. So stick with your clan, because it’s only going to get worse.

Yasha Levine last wrote about how California’s pillaging the poor to finance better courthouse digs, the erection-murdering blabbermouthiness of America’s priciest virgin and his quest for smack and the modern speakeasy on the streets of LA. You can reach him at levine@exiledonline.com

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32 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Mark  |  February 17th, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    oh, boo-hoo. let me get out a hanky. Hey, when Mr. Small Businessman entered into the lease contract, you can bet he was thinking about how much money he could make, and how beneficial a long-term lease would be. So it didn’t work out the way he planned.

    Look, why won’t offer to buy some bowls and boards at full price, if you think shoppers shouldn’t appreciate a discount? I’m sure they can ship.

    And America is worse than being in Russia. ha, what a laugh. You’re as fucking asinine as Ames.

    Incidentally, speaking of whom, could someone tell me why I incessantly read and comment on everything Ames does for like 10 years now? Do I suffer from some kind of problem? Am I gay? I don’t think I am. I mean, the fact that I am not rich but I always support rich people against those who are struggling makes me pretty much a typical bottomer faggot, but does that also make me gay? Just wondering…

  • 2. Mark  |  February 17th, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    http://www.bowlandboard.com/shop/item.asp?itemid=71

    yeah, 20 bucks for some wooden utensils. cry me a river, you dumbfucks : ) Oh wait I just quoted Justin Timberlake, who’s one of my favorites. Am I really a gay faggot? God, I hope not. Oh, the shame!

  • 3. just saying  |  February 17th, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Gotta say, the comments section of these articles are awful. But, I guess that’s what you get when all of your articles are just written rage. It’s usually fun to read the articles, but most people can’t write as well and they just end up sounding like shitheads. Rage has to be done well or it ends up as braying.

  • 4. Sean Taylor  |  February 17th, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    Great article, and a good illustration of the impossibility of non-local capitalism as a sustainable way of life. The quote “I’ll never go into business again with someone I can’t shake hands with. This is primal, caveman stuff. But it’s true.” pretty much sums up the problem. The current system of legalized exploitation is about as stable as a house of cards, and as natural as a frozen pizza shipped from thousands of miles away to your local Wal-Mart.

    “Stick with your clan” is the best advice for the times ahead. Tribalism has worked for thousands of centuries, globalist capitalism will be lucky to last another decade. I’m afraid a new Dark Age, if not a Stone Age, is rapidly approaching. The signs of disintegration are everywhere, from rapacious Wall Streeters to Somali pirates to the Taliban takeover of Pakistan. Social contracts everywhere are in tatters, and no amount of stimulus can repair them. Enjoy these last days of modern life while you still can, but give serious thought to developing real skills for the harsh conditions to come. The end of this civilization doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it requires a huge mental and spiritual adjustment. The only question now is when will a critical mass be reached that finally tips the balance toward rebellion and collapse. And don’t even bother carpet bombing the USA — the collapse brought on by this orgy of greed will do the job quite nicely.

  • 5. aleke  |  February 17th, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    How can you read Ames for ten years and still be so willfully ignorant. Maybe it’s just hard for some people to contextualize all this information.

    Let me help you out: Subvert the power hierarchies, it’s that simple. Any power that one wields is at the expense of someone or something else. So the small, greedy guy, is much better than the monstrous greedy monster at the top.

  • 6. Viceroy  |  February 17th, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    I own a small storefront in a small town. Sure we’re hurting, and I’d probably be outta business. But my crusty old, usually unprofessional, small town, landlord acctually cut my rent without me even asking. It’s the big organizations that’ll really fuck you. In my opinion they often kill the golden goose, and frankly I’m happy to see these big entities start dying too. Hopefully this downturn will be so deep and hard that we can start over with a bit more reality in our business at the expense of the big boys. The cockroaches are the last to die.

  • 7. Commie  |  February 17th, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    The first poster (Mark) apparently did not heed Yasha’s advice to stick with one’s clan, because it’s only going to get worse. In Russia, most folks have a ‘clan’ to stick with. In the US most folks don’t… Anybody have an aunt or a grandma in the countryside with a garden?

  • 8. grisha  |  February 17th, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    i heard the same news story the other day while sitting outside of a similar store in park slope brooklyn (they aren’t going out of business). i’m sorry yasha but you completely missed the whole point of this situation. americans are going under because they have grown week. in my community this would have gone differently. 1. he would have had or procured a secondary credit card account that wouldn’t have been frozen by the court and continued to do business. 2. if the inventory was as good as the land lord’s then he would have taken everything valuable out the back have a cash only sale at which he would have sold not just the merchandise and displays but the fixtures, copper plumbing, copper wires, windows doors and anything else that can be carried off. 3. all cash and records would immediately disappear in a unexplained fire and insurance would have been claimed for all inventory. (trust me this would be done right no charges would be filed.) insurance proceeds would mysteriously end up in an offshore account and the landlord would have been left at his “razbitaya karita”

    so fuck bowl and board. decent is another word for weak and honest another word for stupid.

    otherwise, keep up the good work and thank you.

  • 9. Mark  |  February 17th, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    Hey everyone I forgot to add you should buy Ames’ book “Going Postal.” I have a few copies myself, changed my life. God, I wish there was a way to reach him.

  • 10. mechagodzilla  |  February 17th, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    word has it that panic brings out the worst in people, but what amazes me is how low that threshold is in some cases, and how institutionalized it can become. Are people really going to a fucking HOUSEWARE store crying about how hellish the economy is and how they need to get theirs?! Has 50 Cent’s rap lyrics sunk into the white New England consciousness? Are you assholes trying to ‘keep it real’ or something?

    Jesus, you get to eat, drive a car, pop out kids, and you want 90% off your pottery shenanigans too? Assholes.

  • 11. Yanos  |  February 18th, 2009 at 12:02 am

    People like this should be shot, stabbed, and dragged by their unraveling testicles behind a bus, while screaming children urinate on their dying remains.

    For those who would like to give personal feedback to these dirty Nazi scumbags :

    Capital Properties : Ph# 2129800090
    http://www.bored.com/dialpeople/index.php

  • 12. Tam  |  February 18th, 2009 at 12:18 am

    A really good article and surprisingly sensitive for this site. A few points though…
    I doubt Capital Properties are prospering much either at the moment and they’re sure to be needing every cent they can get hold of given what’s happening to commercial property. Their charming behaviour won’t help em though, ultimately they’re bound to get what’s coming to them before too long.

    More generally, the rich are suffering (relatively) as much as the poor this time around. I’m surprised more people haven’t been pointing out that the recession has done so much to reduce the gap between rich and poor as all that imaginary finance money vanishes into the ether.

    Also, don’t be to sure people won’t start working together more. It might just take a bit longer to get there. Don’t forget that the recession had been going on for quite some time before ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. People need a while to adjust to the new reality. Kopefully…

  • 13. Carlos  |  February 18th, 2009 at 10:32 am

    It’s too bad that Bowl & Board are going out of business, but it’s just that: business. Why all the sentimentality? Rule #1 in small businesses and family-owned business is pay yourself first. That family isn’t hurting. And all Capital Props. did was what was allowable by law in any country in the world. Contract law isn’t complicated or obfuscated. There was a “handshake”–the lease. Bowl & Board is the party that couldn’t live up to its end of the bargain and wanted to alter the “handshake.”

    And I’m calling bullshit on the missed court date. You can’t enter a judgment on someone who hasn’t been served. So if an old address was used, no one was served. The only caveat being if Giarusso was negligent in informing Capital Props. of his new address. In that case, it’s his own damn fault.

    What’s the point of your article anyway? Should Capital Props. lose money and layoff workers so that Bowl & Board can continue to lose money but not layoff workers? How does that benefit anyone?

    And Sean Taylor is an idiot.

  • 14. wengler  |  February 18th, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    I read some of the stories of Circuit City getting descended on by vultures right as they entered into liquidation. Unlike a mom and pop store, however, corporate liquidation involves upping the price and then fake perecentage cuts. The vultures robbing the vultures in effect.

    For down and out Circuit City employees sitting back and watching a person buy a tv that was 50 dollars less a week before with no return policy must have been both funny and sad to watch.

    In other news credit card rates are rising even higher than their already usurious levels.

  • 15. Harv  |  February 18th, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    Indeed as one distinguished comments contributor had previously suggested – the proprieter of this pitiful, pathetic business could have easily avoided/prevented his capital loss.
    “Electrical fires” or simply arson accompanied by cash bribery payments to local fire officials are very useful in such situations. Also, it would serve as bonus retribution towards the landlord.
    This New England faggot fuck is worthy of his fate.

  • 16. Plamen Petkov  |  February 19th, 2009 at 3:27 am

    America: Neither a “democracy” nor practicing “free market system”.
    Haven’t you heard? Greenspan the high priest of capitalism has turned communist and is endorsing the nationalization of banks. Now I have heard everything. Glad I left America 5 years ago and never looked back. ANY place else is better.

  • 17. kotek besar  |  February 19th, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Who needs $20 wooden utensils during a recession? B&B should go out of business, and take its precious little name with it.

  • 18. Joe Blow  |  February 19th, 2009 at 11:22 am

    great info…good writing style. week premise

    oh ain’t they SPECIAL!

    “These deep, one-piece, kiln-dried wood bowls are finished with 100% food-safe beeswax. They are made in Vermont from choice, naturally fallen hardwood trees. Because of the unique manufacturing process, each bowl is beautifully individual”

    a full 5, yes 5 inches high and 15″ diameter.

    for…..tada $165! but wait buy one now and we’ll throw in some toothpicks! That’s a $35 value! and that’s not all.. I’ll let you kiss my ass.. no charge! all included.

  • 19. Boris Nemtsov  |  February 19th, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Just looking at that smiley consumer bitch in the photo makes me hate this country even more. All this mindless commericalism to keep our obese, dumbshit kids happy is why we’re here in the first place.

  • 20. BBee  |  February 19th, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    That store should never have existed in the 1st place

  • 21. Bernie Madoff  |  February 20th, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Haahahhaaa! What a laugh riot! The only thing that could make this story funnier is if all the B&B ex-employees freeze to death this winter after their children get cancer and starve.

  • 22. Requiem  |  February 20th, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    @Carlos

    Sending a summons to an address the defendant doesn’t live at is far from allowed by law. And if they knew the defendant wasn’t there, it’s criminal.

  • 23. Carlos  |  February 23rd, 2009 at 11:15 am

    If the old address was the address of record and B&B didn’t update it or notify anyone, it’s B&B’s fault. There isn’t anything in the story that mentions the service was purposely made at the wrong address. If it were made purposely, then there would be nothing to complain about, because there wouldn’t be a judgment. A first year laws student could have gotten the case dismissed or forced reservice. That neither of those happened leads me to believe B&B just didn’t update its address. Tough shit for them.

  • 24. Neilius  |  February 23rd, 2009 at 11:26 am

    I think you and Ames should write and article clearly stating your political/social/economic/ethical views. I’ve been a fan of The Exile since I picked one up eight years ago in Moscow. I have generally agreed with most things you and others have written, and even those parts I didn’t agree with I at least could understand your perspective.

    However, recently it seems that you guys can’t make up your minds. Meaning you are promoting paradoxical viewpoints. You were against the bail out, but now it seems you’re for it. You disliked liberals and the PC agenda, but now you support it? Two years ago, this article is just the sort of thing you would have been lampooning. I can’t understand your papers recent swing from hard nosed realpolitik to milksop Democratic Party idealism.

    Take this article for instance. You bemoan the lack of ____ (what? love? compassion?) displayed by a rich landlord, as if this was something new. Who in their right mind would expect any modern business to behave differently than this landlord did? Further, it’s not clear to me how this debacle has anything to do with the landlord. Like so many other Americans, the store simply made a bad bet, by betting that the economy would behave other than the way it did. They have no one to blame for this but themselves (and perhaps fortune). To blame the landlord for their own miscalculation is as silly as me blaming a currency for losses incurred betting on FOREX. If they had been right in their estimations they certainly wouldn’t have paid the landlord extra, nor done some other large favor for him, as their profits would have nothing to do with him. Just so, it’s hardly fair to blame him for their losses.

  • 25. aleke  |  February 24th, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Nelius, I’m sure the Exile’s creed is no creed. It is against any ideology, philosophical catechism, or religion (secular or otherwise). just cold hard truth: nothingness.

    you should expect it, people love imposing themselves on others. it’s the reason why rhetoric is not just used by sociopathic politicians, but by all kinds of artists as well. from mussolini to picasso to cicero to byron, we simply want to impose our reality on someone else, no matter what our career/life aspirations.

    and every violent pathetic fool eats it up. it’s why secular ‘socialism’ turned out so religious. we’re all ideological fools that need context for our hate even if it’s pure fantasy

  • 26. Vomit boy  |  June 8th, 2009 at 11:52 am

    I don’t get it? So the bank helps board and basket go under? Well now..they have no tenant to replace them do they? So I guess the bank eats the property tax? In the same vein, why are we making the home owner leave when the home goes into foreclosure? So it can sit empty and decay? Wouldn’t it be wiser to let the people stay and pay something? Even if it’s just the property tax? Doesn’t make any sense to me. But I’m not a fucking machine. Remember the movie “Fast Food Nation”? Chris Kristofferson (fucked up that name, WGAF) says the “machine doesn’t give a fuck. It wants a penny a pound”. Corporations are machines and they don’t give a fuck. But because they are all greed and don’t give a fuck they are going to die…soon…by their own hands…or..fucking sprockets what ever. They’re own greed. No humans to lube the sprockets so to speak. And Mark, if you are Gay, embrace your gayness. Love yourself Mark. Remember the third rule of this Universe…the law of Allowance. Let other be free. Let others live according to the dictates (there’s a dick there so don’t get excited) of their own plan. It’s all fucking bullshit anyway…a big fucking bullshit matrix. A matrix controled by fucking idiots who do not Allow. That violates a law of the Universe doesn’t it? Look for Gort and Klaato in the near future.

  • 27. Linwood D. E.  |  September 26th, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    A damn good article. It paints a pretty decent picture of America.

    How did you guys move to Russia?

  • 28. William  |  December 15th, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    Here’s a good one! The best way to F a greedy landlord is to beat him at his own game. Make sure you liquidate all assets if you know you are going under. If you have a bank loan – usually the banks will have first dibs on any equipment/inventory anyway – so the landlord will be in line and will never get anything.

    Also, if the greedy bastard got you to sign a personal guarantee – just file Chapter 7 – and he gets NOTHING. F those guys! If you are in other leases with personal guarantees – once you file Chapter 7 – that releases you from ALL other personal guarantees, so those crooks can’t get their dirty mitts on any of your personal property!

    Landlords unwilling to work with current tenants in this recession is very stupid. The commercial real estate market won’t recover for another 3 years. I suppose they rather get no rent than less rent.

  • 29. William  |  August 10th, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    Hey I got one Mark and all of you other greedy folks on this thread. Thanks for ruining it all for the rest of us. Have you ever heard of class war? Stick around cause it’s coming up next.

  • 30. Jeff  |  November 7th, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    America is a greedy heartless place compared to anyother country in the world. Only in america has christianity turned into a religion of capitalism via the gospel of prosperity. I honestly hope the american economy totally and completly collapses. Then let the former usa partition into seperate nations.

  • 31. Athair Siochain  |  April 10th, 2012 at 1:28 am

    So many posts have lost the plot. when you buy a item, you do donate to the greedy landlord, maybe 20%/50% of the cost of the item, the landlord does nothing lives a pleasurable lifestyle, we should hang them all, the are the bedbugs of humanity, how much do landlords collect from a loaf of bread, just follow a seed of wheat to the shop shelf.hundreds of landlords could be getting a cut. dont forget almost all our politicians on all sides are collectors of rent,

  • 32. Beachsunriver  |  September 28th, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    Athair Siochian.

    People need rental properties. Here are a few examples.

    1. People who are building often need to rent while they build.

    2. People who have sold their homes while searching for another need to rent til they find one to buy.

    3. People who are forced to work interstate often need to rent close to work while renting their own homes to.

    4. People renevating their homes often need to rent while the work is getting done.

    So I think it’s quite obvious tht you’re a narrow minded half wit that doesn’t think before blurting out your ridiculous statements. Go back to ripping people off with your cheap violin sales.

    You should hang your head in shame Athair Siochian.


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