Two Saturdays ago, just hours before the store was scheduled to close for good, John Zawisny momentarily drew a blank when I asked him what he’d miss about Eagle Provisions, the Polish grocery his family had owned and operated since 1979 in the Brooklyn’s South Slope neighborhood.
He shrugged. “I don’t know.” Then, after some thinking: “Having a purpose.”
No mention of beloved customers. No effusive expression of the meaning of community. No forced nostalgia. No lamentations. No tears. The family bought the business and the building more than thirty years ago for $65,000. It sold for $7.5 million. After decades of hard work, John Zawisny is taking a break, and treating his family to a cruise to Greece, Croatia, Montenegro, and Venice. He couldn’t seem happier about the turn of events.
I found this strangely refreshing, despite being the sort of person who has felt deeply heart-sore at the demise of other classic New York City institutions throughout the last decade. Despite being the sort of person who prides herself on having warm, friendly relations with neighborhood shopkeepers.
But my relationship with Eagle Provisions had always been more complex: cordial, but distant. Since moving into an apartment around the corner from the store more than eighteen years ago, I’ve known that—politically and culturally—the Zawisnys and I didn’t often see eye to eye. But I’d resolved long ago that maybe I didn’t need to get into arguments about Socialism or reproductive rights while picking pork chops or buying seltzer.
Since 1996, I’d estimate that I stopped into the store at least three times a week; that’s nearly 3000 visits. Some of my neighbors have been coming here for 30 years or more. I’d grown accustomed to my regular morning exchanges of hellos with the lovely Anya, who worked the register. To my brief, pleasant chats with the indefatigably cheerful Richie, Jr., John’s nephew. I’ve sometimes joked that I’ve accumulated enough material to write a novel about the Zawisny family, their employees, and what often appeared to be their brazen disinterest in—if not outright contempt for—produce. I often found their prices outrageous, and their attention to sell-by dates cavalier.
Eagle was not Mr. Hooper’s store. Unlike many other local merchants—at bars and delis, coffeehouses and cafes—it never felt as though the Zawisnys were here to make friends. But they were, nonetheless, always here: up and running at 6 a.m., even in blizzards. A couple of winters ago, Richard Zawisny, John’s brother, came to my rescue when I was in a hurry to test a recipe requiring whole allspice. The store had none in stock, but after some inquiry on my part, Richie disappeared into the back of the store, emerged with a half-full, commercial-size jar of the stuff and handed it to me. It felt like a gesture of acceptance—and maybe more, a benediction.
Losing Eagle feels different from losing other places where I was a regular customer. When Liquor Store—a bar I loved, and where I’d logged innumerable hours—shut down, it felt as though a whole community was broken up, forced to disperse, set adrift. Eagle was an essential part of my community, arguably its anchor. But it was not a community in itself—and that’s probably not a grocery store’s job.
There’s an impulse to canonize a place once it’s gone, especially a place that lasted as long as Eagle Provisions did. Eagle had heaps of idiosyncratic character (years ago, a friend referred to it as “the food museum”) and that was reflected as much by its flaws as its virtues. But this, for a change, wasn’t the story of the little guy losing the good fight against the corporate monster. Here was a family business that hadn’t fallen to rising rents. They were in charge here, and exiting on their own (extremely lucrative) terms. The Zawisnys aren’t victims of gentrification; they’re its beneficiaries. Knowing this makes nostalgia less tempting to indulge. But depending on what moves into Eagle’s place, that could change.