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Rumblings in Roslindale

A Boston neighborhood feels the tremors of a troubled economy

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / April 25, 2008

Open Door Realty is closing its doors, moving to a less expensive space across the park. Bob's Pita Bakery up the street has stopped baking pitas. And the manager of the pizzeria on the corner now takes a train and a bus to work most days, rather than racking up higher bills for gas.

This is what the nation's economic tremors feel like on Main Street. While economists debate the immediacy of a recession, the merchants and shoppers here in Roslindale Village can tell you times have already changed. They can see it in the spike in secondhand sales at The Thrift Shop. They can see it in the rush on DVDs and free museum passes at the library. They can see it in the smaller purchases, the higher delivery costs, the daily decisions to stay closer to home.

On the streets of one unassuming Boston neighborhood, people feel the vibrations from distant detonations: The rumblings on Wall Street after the collapse of the mortgage market. The war in the Middle East and the drumbeat of bad news about energy prices. The explosion of Midwest wheat prices, which is driving up the local costs of bread and flour.

"Everyone is complaining - not complaining, crying," said Sam Awad, a Roslindale resident who drives a taxi.

Not only is he losing money to higher gas prices, but his customers have become stingy with their tips. "Everyone is being affected," he said. "All kinds of businesses."

Take a walk through Roslindale Village past the no-frills storefronts of Poplar Street to the gussied-up bistro and brick sidewalks of Birch. Witness the American economy, limping along.

In May 2004, five days after Joe Murphy bought A. Boschetto Bakery, a fixture on Washington Street for more than five decades, he was crushed between two cars while sitting on his Harley-Davidson. He spent nine weeks in a coma and nine months in an upper-body cast.

He survived. Now Murphy, 60, is trying to keep his bakery alive.

In the past year, the costs of running the business have skyrocketed: The price of flour tripled. The price of eggs doubled. And providing health insurance now required by the state cost the bakery an extra $20,000 last year.

"I'm into the bakery for around three-quarters of a million dollars, with no return on my investment," Murphy said.

Next week, he will begin raising his prices, from $9.50 to at least $10 for a pound of cookies. But the math isn't easy.

"When you're trying to run a small business, dealing directly with the public, you have to step back and say, how much can I charge for a loaf of bread or a cake before they start saying, 'You're ripping me off?' " Murphy said. "In good conscience, how much can I charge my loyal customers?"

In the past two weeks, he had to cut six employees, including Barbara Davis.

"That hurt," said Davis, 51, who started working overnight shifts in February. "I'm upset, because it's very, very difficult, especially for a woman my age, to go out and find another position."

For now, she's extending her hours at her second job, now her only job, at a Malden cookie manufacturer.

Up Washington Street, the Roslindale branch of the Boston Public Library is alive with students on computers and men using the photocopier or reading the newspaper. The library is thriving as people cut back on spending and get creative with their borrowing.

They are reserving DVDs as if the library is Netflix. They are calling like mad - 15 calls in less than three hours last week - for free passes to area museums.

"They're like gold," said Catherine Davidson, a librarian's assistant. The New England Aquarium pass has gone unclaimed only four days this month.

Roslindale Village, a thriving neighborhood center in the 1950s that was drained by the white flight of the 1970s, was the city's first urban center to be designated a Main Street district.

In 1985, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, then a city councilor, tapped federal funds to help restore facades, bolster local merchants, and attract new restaurants.

Now, the village is a food lover's paradise, with ethnic markets, inviting restaurants, and a belt-straining six bakeries. Here, you can find burritos, baklava, bibimbop, pizza, paella, and pho. Casually chic restaurants mingle with unadorned postwar markets whose owners seem to see no need for upgrades.

The storefronts of Greek markets dangle candles ribboned and bedecked with toys for Orthodox Easter, while the broad window at Fornax Bread Co., maker of artisanal breads, is draped with artfully mismatched aprons.

Unlike most urban centers, Roslindale Village still feels completely real, dominated by locally owned businesses and traversed by people from a wide array of races and income levels.

And it remains a place where many people take the bus. They line up or sit along the benches on Poplar Street across from Adams Park, waiting.

Overlooking Adams Park is Open Door Realty. After six years of high visibility in the retail office and one year of a sluggish real estate market, Kim Ecevido can no longer justify the space. She is moving to a tucked-away office where she will not need to pay someone to greet visitors. (She has already let one receptionist go.)

Across South Street, Bob's Pita Bakery has kept its name, but now functions only as a Middle Eastern market. Buckets of succulent olives tempt near the register, where George Habib - the delivery man, occasional cashier, and general assistant - leans.

The bakery, hidden behind a closed door at the back of the market, once churned out 5,000 bags of pitas a day. Now, it lies dark and dormant with its floor-to-ceiling flour silo, giant racks for bread, and an 800-degree oven that was costing owner Robert Khouzami $3,000 a month in gas. He stopped baking last fall.

Khouzami started working here in 1980, the same year he emigrated from Lebanon, and bought the business 10 years later.

He had to lay off five people when he stopped baking. That may not be enough. "I'll be honest with you - I'd like to let him go," Khouzami said, gesturing to Habib, who smiled, nodding.

"He knows it," Khouzami said. "But I feel like he's my brother. I've been with him like 25 years."

So now, Bob's Pita Bakery orders 1,000 bags of pitas a day from Rhode Island and Canada, a better deal, despite today's gas prices, which Khouzami knows well. He also owns four area gas stations, which would seem to be a more lucrative line of work now. But it's not. Competition is so fierce, he said, that he can only charge his customers what he is paying for gas.

Adding insult to injury, vendors serving his store are charging him extra to pay for gas. Khouzami will spend an additional $136 this month to have the market's trash hauled away.

On Birch Street stands a store owned by Joanne Rossman, whose sign proclaims her a "purveyor of the unnecessary and the irresistible." She wants her shop to remain that way, recession or not, so she has brought in lower-cost items - a $4 notebook to place beside her $125 slippers - and she is introducing more affordable jewelry designers.

"You need something that promises a future," said Rossman, who has seen recessions come and go in her 68 years. "If nothing else, being tagged an irresistible and unnecessary store is a good way to look the world in the eye and just keep trucking."

Turn on Corinth and then Cohasset, past the wall murals: At the far end of the street is a tan house that is now padlocked. It's one of several in the neighborhood that have been foreclosed on this year. Roslindale is not a neighborhood hard hit by foreclosures, but this tidy, two-family house stands as a monument to the losses the mortgage market has wrought.

Not everyone is feeling the squeeze, of course, and shoppers sound more wary than panicked. Sandra Castillo is still looking for interesting finds at The Thrift Shop on Corinth Street, though she cannot walk out with six suits the way she once did, even here. With gas prices eating up so much of her pay, she also cannot sample a new neighborhood restaurant every day.

And that works for Tony DeBenedictis, the happiest guy in the square. His European-style butcher shop, Tony's Market, has been on Washington Street since 1969, and he always does better when the economy is staggering.

"Now the economy is a little bit on the rocks; people cook," said DeBenedictis, 69, who goes ballroom dancing at least three nights a week. "What you pay in a restaurant, you can buy in food for a week."

Yes, the prices of his Italian imports, the limoncello cakes and some pastas, climbed slightly as the dollar lost value against the euro. But his outlook is sanguine.

"What do you do?" he said, gesturing. "That goes up, that goes up. You don't eat anymore?"

And in walked his girlfriend, Deborah Maietta, dressed for ballroom dancing.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.

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