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"Everything Must Go,'' is Needham Street's refrain

Posted November 28, 2008 07:00 AM

Bundled against the cold, the human billboards are out on the weekends at both ends of Needham Street in Newton, their bold-colored, bold-lettered signs — STORE CLOSING! EVERYTHING MUST GO! — pronouncing the end of Tweeter and Linens ’n Things, where an acre of combined shopping space is being liquidated of merchandise.

In between the bookends of this shopping corridor, other chains have already closed: Fabric Place and Mattress Discounters, where a doormat at the locked entrance still beckons, ‘‘Have a Good Night’s Sleep on Us.’’

Pockets of empty stores are appearing in Boston’s suburbs, the result of a string of bankruptcy filings or store-closure announcements by regional and national chains, including Tweeter, Linens ’n Things, Circuit City, even Starbucks. The closings, scattered for now, have retailers, landlords, employees, local officials, and shoppers — as they hold tighter to their wallets and scout for going-out-of-business sales — worrying as the holiday shopping season begins. This area may fare better than the rest of the nation, but the worst is yet to come everywhere, retail and commercial real estate analysts say.

‘‘Things are so unpredictable right now, and it’s very frightening to think what the future brings for the retail business,’’ said Judy Post, a Needham resident who was shopping for furniture recently.

‘‘Every furniture store I went into, I was the only one in the store, and all the sales people were sitting and waiting around for somebody to come in,’’ said Post, 65, a retired clinical nurse specialist, as she paused before entering the Newton Linens ’n Things. ‘‘It was a very eerie feeling.’’

The human billboards are out in Natick and Framingham, too, and yet some places along that route remain crowded. ‘‘I was at the Natick mall last weekend, and it’s still pretty full. We’re definitely in an economic crisis, but people are still spending,’’ said Ilana Schwartz, 34, of West Newton, as she prepared to peruse discounts at the housewares store, where even the shopping carts were for sale.

Over the last decade, big-box stores and chains flourished. Now, commentators in some parts of the country are pronouncing the demise of an era in suburban shopping — with people in big SUVs going to big stores to buy stuff for big houses — and warning of a landscape littered with empty big-box stores and scarred shopping plazas.

Around Boston, analysts predict a slowdown, not devastation. The current and looming closures reflect economic troubles as well as the realization that the retail scene is oversaturated, with many stores selling the same products.

Until recently, Newton offered a stark example of an ‘‘overstored’’ market: two Starbucks stores within a couple blocks of each other in Newton Centre. One has closed.

‘‘You can have a Starbucks on every corner in a good economy, but in a bad economy you have to have one every few miles,’’ said Linda Grignolo, 58, a Wellesley homemaker who nonetheless voiced cautious optimism about the retail outlook.

Jonathan D. Miller, a New York-based analyst and author of an annual industry outlook, ‘‘Emerging Trends in Real Estate,’’ said the weakest malls and ‘‘power centers’’ — meaning plazas with multiple big-box retailers that have sprouted near regional malls — could become empty in the coming years.

‘‘Over time, with an improved economy, Americans will buy again, and malls will thrive again. It’s just not going to be in the next two or three years,’’ said Miller.

At the Newton Tweeter, Tom de la Cruz, 27, said he will soon be looking for work for the first time since 2001.

Without the store, consumers will lose the personal service and expertise from the retailer that once promoted ‘‘a boatload of know-how,’’ he said, but they can still buy flat-screen TVs from ‘‘Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and Circuit City — until they go under.’’ That is, if people are still shopping for flat-screen TVs.

‘‘Everything we have is a luxury item,’’ de la Cruz said. ‘‘No one needs a 52-inch TV.’’
Nearby, a middle-aged man who gave his name only as Yuri browsed the final-sale items but left without buying — yet.

‘‘They’re not giving it away,’’ the man said, outside the store.

‘‘The end of the world is not coming,’’ he added, climbing into a Volvo. ‘‘But things will be tight for a while.’’

-- Eric Moskowitz

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