LEE -- As Helen "Bunny" Larson was dying of cancer four years ago, her youngest son, Rick Clayson, vowed to do his best to keep open "The Upstairs Basement."
Clayson says he made the promise knowing the consignment shop that Larson started nearly 40 years ago was his mother's life and had become an anchor of the downtown business district.
On March 15, Clayson will hoist the anchor, closing the Main Street store his mother envisioned was going to be a struggle to remain profitable -- even if she were still alive. Larson died in September 2009, a year into the Great Recession.
"She probably knows how hard we've worked to keep it open," he said. "I honestly think she knew what was going on with the economy and it scared her to death."
Aside from the tough economic times, Clayson said "The Upstairs Basement" has also been unable to overcome a change in customer demographics, lack of quality goods for resale and the need for a formal lease with a new landlord.
Since 1971, the consignment shop at 53 Main St. -- its third downtown location -- has taken in other people's clothing, housewares, jewelry, books, furniture and other items for resale and split the proceeds with the consignors.
In recent years, Clayson has noticed a serious decline in year-round sales with the traditional Berkshire tourist season unable to make up the difference.
"Last summer and fall we didn't get the shot in the arm we needed to get through the winter," he said.
Clayson says the store's inventory isn't what it used to be, as fewer people are bringing in unique and expensive items that fetch big dollars. Purple Heart war medals, a lifelike china doll and a dress allegedly worn by a daughter of Czar Nicholas II, who was overthrown during the 1917 Russian Revolution, are among the head-turning items that have come and gone in past years.
As Mary Antonelli, of Lenox, shopped at the store Tuesday morning, she was surprised to learn the shop was closing given what it has to offer.
"The last time I was here I found a fantastic vintage dress," Antonelli said. "When I find a treasure like that, I come back because I might find something else good too."
Clayson says the uncertainty of the consignment business also made it difficult for him meet his new landlord's request for a formal lease agreement and rent increase. However, he understands Berkshire Housing Development Corp. can't maintain the arrangement he had with the previous owners.
BHDC purchased the three-story mixed-use building from the Consolati family last year, as part of its $2.7 million affordable housing rehabilitation project. The nonprofit agency is currently renovating the 16 one- and two-bedroom apartments, with the first floor remaining commercial space.
BHDC officials on Tuesday were unavailable for comment on the status of project and the future of the soon-to-be vacated storefront.
To reach Dick Lindsay:
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