The sign in the POP Montreal office window jumped out at me as I drove down Parc Ave., Monday morning. An odd but endearing display of affection, I thought, for the landmark neighbourhood café and bakery I grew up next door to. But when I turned on the radio that afternoon, midway through a CBC Homerun report about a cherished Mile End café shutting down, I knew.
I called Navarino Tuesday morning and asked for Peter Tsatoumas, but was told he had left for the day. I tracked him down on Facebook, receiving an immediate acceptance of my friend request; but when I messaged him about doing a story on Navarino’s closing – radio silence.
Wednesday morning, I called again, but Tsatoumas was “downstairs” and couldn’t come to the phone. I left a message, but I saw where this was going. I walked through Navarino’s door 20 minutes later. The place had changed, again.
When my family moved to Parc and St-Viateur St. in 1983, the little Greek bakery and pastry shop next door became a regular stop for its honey-and-nut-filled baklavas. The Greek magazines on the rack in front of the counter provided a hint of exoticism, and the fridge on the other side had milk, eggs and other basics to get you through in a pinch.
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The husband-and-wife-run operation came with two sons, Peter and Steve, twins a few years older than my brother and me. When I tried my luck buying a couple of beers to bring to a nearby park around age 15, Steve eyed me skeptically from behind the counter.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Eighteen,” I replied, hopefully.
“You’re not 18,” he shot back, putting the bottles in a paper bag and sending me on my way with an indulgent grin.
The brothers took over the business in 1992, turning it into a coffee shop while keeping the bakery component. The salad bar became a source of sustenance that got me through university. Navarino’s hearty spanakopita and pizzas were part of my daily diet, not to mention those chewy chocolate chip cookies.
And always, there were the brothers, treating my brother, me and everyone else like their own. When Steve died tragically in a bike accident in 2005, I – like seemingly all of Mile End – was devastated. I’ll never forget the ashen look on Peter’s face at the funeral home.
Peter carried on the business alone for the next decade, but now it’s time for a change. On Saturday, Dec. 17, Navarino’s doors will close for good, marking the end of a 54-year run for the Mile End institution that Peter’s father, Kosta, initially opened a block up the street, with his three brothers, in 1962.
“It’s hard to say goodbye,” Tsatoumas said, after giving me a warm hug and agreeing to a rare interview about the closing. “Fifty-four years. I feel like I’m doing the wrong thing, like I’m giving up on myself and this place. But I gotta do it. It’s a hard business to run.”
Though it boomed through the ’90s and early 2000s, feeding the steady clientele coming and going from the freshly renovated YMCA across the street, Navarino has come on harder times of late.
And it’s a time sucker. Getting up at 2 a.m. to drive in from Laval and start work at 2:30 to prepare for morning deliveries has lost its charm for the father of two.
“After all these years by yourself, it’s hard,” Tsatoumas said, “very hard. It’s not busy like it used to be. It’s a lot quieter, as you can see. There used to be lineups. Working six, seven days a week, five to 15 hours a day, depending. My family went to Greece this year; I wasn’t able to.”
Tsatoumas has already booked next year’s trip – a three-and-a-half-week visit that will mark just his second journey back to the motherland in over 30 years. The prospect of spending quality time with his family was a big part of the motivation to move on.
“It took me a couple years to make the decision,” he said, “but after that I was just fed up, tired. After my brother passed away, (I realized) life is too short. My kids are 14 and 12. I’m 47. I’m pretty sure I can still do something else. What, I have no idea. I’ve just got to sit back and clear my head.”
It helps knowing the space will be in good hands. Vince Spinale, former barista and manager at Café Olimpico, around the corner, plans to open an Italian coffee shop that will maintain the friendly neighbourhood vibe.
As Tsatoumas prepares to step away from it all, I prompted him for his favourite memories.
“I remember everything,” he said. “We grew up here. We were practically born here. My brother, our cousins, we were all over here as kids. The Greek community, the change and transformation of the whole area.”
During the ice storm of 1998, Navarino supplied food to people camped out at the Y (a YMCA plaque on the wall commemorates the gesture), while the café became a standing-room-only hangout in its own right.
“To see everybody come together, I really enjoyed that.” Tsatoumas said.
And of course, Navarino is where he met his wife, Chresanthi, who worked across the street as an aerobics instructor in the late ’90s. After she came in a few times for lunch, Tsatoumas was smitten.
“I used to tell my boys, ‘I got this one,’” he said, a glint in his eye. “Put that in – (I’ll get) brownie points.”
As we talked, there were a string of interruptions. A postal carrier came over and handed him the day’s mail.
“Ton dernier compte, quasiment, avant que tu t’en ailles,” she said, with a smile. “Oublie-moi pas, hein?”
Evangelos Zoubris, father of local stationery store owner Jimmy, stopped by with a couple friends, exchanging pleasantries in Greek with Tsatoumas.
A woman interjected to confirm that he would indeed be open Saturday. She confided that she had met so many people there since moving to the area a year before, adding:
“You know you’re going to have a whole lot of people crying, eh?”
Source: Montreal Gazette