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Friday, September 6, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Plug Pulled On Computer Store -- Ex-Ballard Computer Shuts Down For Good

Seattle Times Business Reporter

Once upon a time in this now technology-jaded town, before Microsoft ruled and cafes served up Internet Java with your cup of joe, there was a special place known as Ballard Computer. It was the store longtime Seattleites fondly associate with their initiation to the computer revolution.

Today, the shelves at this landmark of Seattle's high-tech heritage are bare. Over the weekend, Doppler Computer Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of the Vancouver, B.C., company that bought the troubled chain last year, quietly packed its boxes, taped a note to the doors of two remaining stores, and went back to Canada.

Darren Budd, a director of Doppler Computer, confirmed that the would-be savior had closed both the flagship Ballard store and its other U.S. store in Mount Vernon over the weekend.

Budd cited intense local competition, difficulty with suppliers and expansion plans in Canada as reasons why the company decided to close the stores.

"It was no surprise to people who knew what was going on there," said Mike Spear, a former manager at Ballard Computer. "They weren't selling anything."

But Doppler's decision to go out with a whimper has caused a bang among some in Ballard. Many, including the building's landlord, were stunned to find the store suddenly empty.

The two outlets shuttered over the weekend were the last vestiges of a six-store chain opened during the 1980s and 1990s. But competition from new, larger chains took its toll, and Ballard Computer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year.

"I really don't know what the heck is going on," said Fred Paulsell, who owns part of the 10,000-square-foot space leased by Doppler on the corner of Northwest Market Street and Ballard Avenue Northwest.

Paulsell, a majority owner of Ballard Computer when the company filed for Chapter 11, said he received a message from a store manager Wednesday evening telling him Doppler had departed. "I'm concerned that they won't meet their obligations as a tenant," he said yesterday.

Budd said he had faxed Paulsell on Tuesday to inform him of the

move. But Budd declined to comment on what would happen with the Ballard property, saying the company's obligations to its employees and vendors came first.

As the Seattle area's first major computer retailer, Ballard Computer was considered an institution. It soared on the first wave of the home-computer revolution.

Sales at the height of business in the early 1990s were about $65 million and employees numbered nearly 130.

Trouble began to surface by 1994. The company was beset by competition from a crop of superstores and the financial strains of its quick expansion.

Another blow was a failed acquisition of Computer Stores Northwest in 1994, which led to a $4.6 million lawsuit by the Oregon company.

Ballard Computer was taken over by Doppler's parent company in mid-1995.

Several former customers and employees said yesterday the chain simply wasn't the same after the change of ownership.

Previously, "Ballard was known as the full-service shop," said Spear, remembering how the technical support staff would stay open on Christmas Day, just so excited computer owners could get their machines up and running.

"It was the place to be," Spear recalled of the store, which first opened in 1984. "You simply didn't buy one anywhere else." ----------------------------------------------------------------- Who to call

Customers with items being repaired or on order at Doppler stores can call 781-7000 and leave a message.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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