Sound Waves tries to hang on Barrs say repairs by malls squeeze their record stores.

July 03, 1991|By Michelle Singletary | Michelle Singletary,Evening Sun Staff

Entrepreneurs Robin and Arthur Barr were so close to becoming a local retail success story.

The Baltimore County couple opened their first record store, Sound Waves, in May 1978 in Ocean City.

Over the next 12 years, they added eight record stores in the Baltimore area. For nearly all those years they showed a profit, the Barrs say.

Robin, 36, a former special education teacher, and Arthur, 39, a former wholesale record distributor, had realized the American dream of owning their own business.

"We wanted to do something on our own rather than saying goodbye in the morning and hello at night," Robin Barr says.

But on May 30 that dream turned into a nightmare. The couple filed for Chapter 11 reorganization under the Federal Bankruptcy Act, listing assets of $511,967 and debts of $402,801. The Barrs, parents of three children ages 3, 5 and 7, may also lose their house, which was used as collateral for their business.

The couple is facing lawsuits filed by the owners of both Westview and Eastpoint malls for past due rent. It was the suit by Eastpoint, which also is trying to recoup rent it would have received under a newly signed five-year lease, that forced the Barrs to file for bankruptcy to avoid being evicted, the couple says.

A combination of factors forced the Barrs to seek bankruptcy protection. However, the couple says the overwhelming factor was bad timing -- three of their most profitable stores were in malls undergoing major renovations.

The malls, Towson Town Center, Westview and Eastpoint, have plans to add more stores and amenities such as skylights and larger parking facilities. Towson Town was able to lure the famed Nordstrom department store chain.

But the Barrs say the multimillion-dollar facelifts at the malls have nearly destroyed their once thriving retail business.

"We know renovations are a necessary evil . . . but if [only] one mall had gone under construction we would have been OK," Robin Barr says.

The Barrs don't blame all their troubles on the mall renovations. They say the recession and Persian Gulf war contributed

to their financial problems.

They also say they cut expenses to the bone, closing stores, laying off employees to save $50,000 in salaries and shutting their downtown warehouse and office for a saving of $10,000. Their warehouse is now in the basement of their Eastpoint store.

Things they had taken for granted in the past, such as cleaning the carpet in the stores, are too much of an expense now. They even canceled subscriptions to trade publications.

"We did everything to save money and survive until the renovations were complete," Robin Barr says.

"We feel we could have made it through the recession but not the construction," Arthur Barr says. But he says sales dropped by 50 percent in the three malls undergoing extensive construction.

At the peak of their success, the Barrs say, they employed 50 to 60 people. They are now down to about 18 workers.

Only three of their nine stores remain open: Ocean CityEastpoint and Beards Hill Plaza in Aberdeen. The Eastpoint store opened in 1980 and the Aberdeen store in 1989.

The couple closed outlets in Westview Mall, Reisterstown Road Plaza, Edgewater Village, Towson Town Center and Festival at Bel Air.

Arthur Barr says the stores in Reisterstown Plaza, Edgewood andBel Air had to be closed to consolidate inventory in an effort to keep the business going.

He says the Eastpoint store a year ago had a staff of 10 and was short-handed. Now that store is staffed with three.

During renovations at Eastpoint, the Barrs say, they have had to endure construction problems that included periods of rain in the indoor mall -- part of the roof was off so that skylights could be added.

The renovations began in January and are scheduled focompletion in October 1992. Eastpoint management says the work was necessary.

"As with all our tenants, we tried to keep construction problems to a minimum," says Robyn Clark, Eastpoint's general manager."People have to understand that when you go through renovations, it is going to be difficult but that in the end we are giving back the public a new, improved mall."

Christopher Schardt, general manager at Towson Town, says he issorry to see the Barrs go. Before the closing, he says, management was prepared to sign Sound Waves to a 10-year lease.

"We understood their circumstances and we were working with them," Schardt says. "It's unfortunate that we couldn't help. We wish they could have stayed."

Schardt says the mall makes an effort to have 25 percent of its tenants be local or independent store owners. Right now it's closer to 30 percent, he says.

At Westview, the renovations turned the mall into a scene reminiscent of Kuwait after the bombing, Arthur Barr says.

"They made it impossible to do business," he says.

The $20 million renovation of the 31-year-old Catonsville mall -- expected to be completed by fall -- will include 150,000 square feet of new retail space, including T.J. Maxx and Marshalls outlets. New skylights, tile floors, decorative fountains and a new facade are part of the plan. The mall last expanded 16 years ago.

"They [Westview] had new people coming in with new tenantand new money. It was going to be wonderful," Robin Barr says.

Mike Conter, vice president of Balcor Development Co., which ++ owns Westview Mall, says he could not comment because of pending legal action.

"Right now we are struggling to hold on," Arthur Barr says. "A year ago we showed a profit; a [month] ago we filed for bankruptcy."

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