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A credit crisis for specialty grocer

Here’s what you get when you combine three old-
fashioned guys, one modern bank, and a war on the other side of the planet.

Ramon, Joey, and Monty Mansour run the paradise that is the Syrian Grocery store on Shawmut Avenue in the South End. Amidst the skyrocketing real estate prices, endless renovations, and outlets selling gourmet cheese and handcrafted dog biscuits, their place stands out. It is little changed from when their father bought it in 1967, when the neighborhood was full of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants. The turquoise shelves are stacked with dried apricots, tahini, date syrup, and pomegranate molasses. The place smells of spices, olives, and distant childhoods.

The holidays are busy here. Recent arrivals stop in for exotic provisions, and longtime customers come from far away to stock up on familiar comforts.

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And so things were going along nicely on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, when all of a sudden the store’s credit card machine refused to cooperate.

“Host error 26 call help desk,” it insisted, unhelpfully.

Ramon called Bank of America, which took over the bank which took over the bank which took over the bank his family first joined 40 years ago, and they told him the store’s credit card services had been terminated.

It turns out someone at Bank of America Merchant Services had taken a look at the store’s official name, Syrian Grocery and Importing Co., and decided that the Mansours might be violating the US Treasury Department’s ban on importing goods from Syria, where mayhem rules.

Now, the Mansours do not import anything directly from Syria. The few Syrian items they carry come through vendors in Lebanon and Michigan. They kept the store’s original name, even though they are Lebanese. How could they have known it would lead to this?

Ramon could have told the Bank of America Merchant Services guy these things if he’d talked to him, but he happened to be out of the store when he called, a week before, to warn that the terminal would be shut down. Joey answered the phone that day, but the man would speak only to Ramon, who was at the Bank of America branch a couple of blocks away.

Ramon says a bank worker there warned him the call might be a scam, so he decided to wait for an official letter. The brothers say Bank of America did not call again. Eventually, a letter arrived warning them that their contract would be terminated in 30 days — 37 days late, on Dec. 3.

Not being able to take credit cards is a big deal for these guys. “I’ve had to turn away numerous customers,” Ramon said. He lost $232 in credit purchases from that day and about $2,000 in sales since. “I don’t think that’s right, the way they went about this here. We have been a longtime customer. They just took our name and profiled us.”

Technically, Bank of America Merchant Services is a separate entity from Bank of America, which owns 49 percent of the company. I called the company Tuesday to ask about the Mansours. A very nice spokesman said he couldn’t comment on specific accounts, but added, “We always attempt to work with customers that have account issues as they arise, while ensuring the card transactions we process comply with all federal rules and regulations.”

Afterward, the company got back in touch with Ramon. They needed him to answer a couple of questions, Ramon said, before he could apply to have his services reinstated. Ramon refused. He’s looking for another company to sign on with.

“What’s the point of answering these questions now,” Ramon said. “It’s too late.”

In the scheme of things, a few thousand dollars’ loss in one store in one holiday season might not seem like much. But it’s a big deal to these guys, who specialize in something the bank seems to have lost track of years ago: personal attention to customers and basic courtesy.

In this collision between the behemoth and the little guys, it’s no mystery who won.

Bank of America, what are you going to do about it?

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