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When Santa Rosa City Councilman John Sawyer voted to oppose Lowe's and Wal-Mart, he felt he was supporting every mom-and-pop business that could fall victim to the financial strength wielded by big-box businesses.

Voting for them "would be stabbing my fellow small business owners in the back," he said. "I couldn't do that."

By next May when his current lease expires, Sawyer will be closing Sawyer's News, one of the last remaining icons of what Santa Rosa's downtown used to be.

The primary reason: big, corporate-owned bookstores.

Sawyer said the arrival in 1994 of a 20,000-square-foot Barnes & Noble store just across Fourth Street from his own 4,000-square-foot store and Borders Books' decision to locate a 20,000-square-foot outlet on Santa Rosa Avenue five years later were the beginning of the end for his 64-year-old business.

"That was the first nail in our coffin but one nail does not a coffin make," Sawyer said.

Despite feverish efforts over the past 15 years to offer better service and a wider selection of popular and niche magazines, while shedding most of its books from its inventory and expanding floor space to offer customers hundreds of greeting card choices, Sawyer said he can no longer afford to keep his doors open.

"Newsstands," Sawyer admitted, "don't survive well with competition."

With Barnes & Noble and Borders skimming sales away from Sawyer's by selling high-volume magazines such as Newsweek, Time and Sports Illustrated along with greeting cards, Sawyer said he was left to sell barely profitable niche magazines.

"Once they cut into the staples of our business, our ability to keep our doors open was in jeopardy. You can't make a living selling Italian Vogue magazine," he said.

Sawyer is the fourth generation to operate the Santa Rosa business, first started in 1945 by his great-grandfather, Dr. Fred Sawyer and grandfather Wilbur Sawyer, and passed on to his father, Wilbur "Bill" Sawyer Jr. in 1977.

Sawyer, who spent his youth working the store's counter and "loving every minute of it," took joint ownership with his twin brother Michael in 1984 when he was 29.

His brother left the business in 1988 and Sawyer became sole owner until 1993 when he was joined by his partner in business and companion in life, Dan Potts.

Since 1994 when Barnes & Noble first arrived, Sawyer said making money was increasingly difficult.

"It's not that Sawyer's News is a failure, but it became a victim of competition, technology and people's changing habits," Sawyer said.

The shift of customers to the Internet and outlying shopping centers, along with the nation's economic nose-dive, all weighed into Sawyer's decision to close his doors when his lease expires next May. And he is not sure if he can stay afloat that long.

His landlord has refused to reduce the almost $7,000 in monthly rent Sawyer pays. Sawyer estimates he's paid over $1 million in rent since moving to the store's current location in 1985.

"I made it clear to them it would help keep our doors open longer but they declined to reduce our rent," he said. "That was the final nail."

Empire Property Services owner Bill Hillendahl, who represents the property owner, the Kenneth E. Langendorf Trust, declined to talk specifically about his negotiations with Sawyer due to privacy issues.

But Hillendahl said in similar scenarios there are options that allow retail operators to remain in business, either by downsizing the amount of space they need or putting other income streams or assets they may have into the business.

In some scenarios, he said, it may be that the rents tenants are paying today haven't been raised for several years.

Sawyer said that even lower rent likely wouldn't have saved his business. "It didn't change our decision, it just hastened it," he said.

"We'll be lucky to still be in business when our lease ends in May 2010," said Sawyer, who said he plans to sell the business, if possible, before that.

His broker, Christina Jang-Poulson of New Star Realty, plans to put Sawyer's on the market Sunday.

She said it's doubtful these days that anyone would be willing to pay more than $100,000 for a small business, particularly one with such high rent.

"In this economy people either don't have, or aren't willing to spend, a lot of money," she said.

If reputation is worth anything, Jang-Poulson is hoping to get the $100,000 maximum for the goodwill Sawyer's News has generated.

"Without the lease, there isn't much there. They would be paying for the name," she said.

Over the past 64 years, Sawyer's News has changed downtown locations three times but all within a two-block area fronting Fourth Street.

Sawyer's father, Bill Sawyer, said that decades ago the newsstand "was the place where a lot of people would come to pick up their Sunday paper and kids would get their funny books."

"We also had newspapers from all over the world, from as far away as Germany, along with local papers including those from San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento. It was a place to get interesting things you couldn't get elsewhere," he said.

The elder Sawyer, now 83, agrees times have changed since he ran a store whose primary sales focus was books, magazines and a tobacco products, including high-end cigars.

The downtown is no longer the primary destination for shoppers, people aren't reading as much and the "camaraderie" Sawyer's engendered from its customers as the place to share the news of the day has waned, he said.

"I think the public has outgrown it. It's the normal evolution of time," he said.

His son said it's also time for him to move on.

At age 54, Sawyer said he's too young to retire and says retail and working with people is his what he loves.

"I'm too young to do nothing but go to council meetings every Tuesday afternoon," said Sawyer, whose current council term ends in 2012.

"And I don't have that youthful spirit or financial capital to re-invent the business to become the popular spot it was until recent years," he said.

But he has an idea what he'd like to do even if it is more whimsical than practical in nature.

"I have thought about opening up a school to train people in customer service," he said.

"They could certainly use that at the big-box stores," he laughed.

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