One more line down the sidewalk. One more plate of turkey hash. One more conversation with the friendly stranger perched on the next stool.
Saturday morning, it was time for one last breakfast at Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, a South End institution that closed permanently after 87 years in business.
“It’s like a living wake,” said co-owner Arthur Manjourides, 73, wiping grill grease from his palms and surveying the packed room that has hardly changed since the shop opened at 429 Columbus Ave. in 1927. “Actually, it’s like my wake, but I still have to cook for everybody.”
Manjourides decided in May that the restaurant he and his siblings have run for 40 years would close. After countless early mornings and long days, his generation is ready to retire, and the next generation has found careers outside the family business.
“It’s bittersweet, but I wanted to be able to walk out of here and not be carried out,” Manjourides said, a line he has repeated many times to heartbroken regulars.
The closing of Charlie’s comes as a gut punch to that tight-knit community of insiders, familiar to each other by face if not by name, many of whom had come at least weekly for decades. For them, Charlie’s stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Boston’s best-known landmarks.
Gil Slovan, 81, recalled moving to Boston from Worcester 12 years ago and asking neighbors what he and his wife should explore first.
“They told us, ‘Well, we got the [Museum of Fine Arts], Fenway Park, and Charlie’s,’ ” he laughed. “And they were right. It’s really become a way of life.”
The small dining room, replete with a wooden icebox and other antique appliances grandfathered in under ancient health codes, was packed from the restaurant’s 7:30 a.m. opening to its 1 p.m. closing.
Occasionally, Manjourides and other workers stepped outside and plucked a favorite regular out of the block-length line for immediate seating, a final gesture of respect and gratitude reserved for the most loyal.
As they waited in the sweltering summer heat, customers floated half-hearted suggestions for new meeting spots but ultimately renounced the idea that anything could take the place of Charlie’s.
Inside, the walls are covered in portraits of celebrities and politicians who have stopped in. President Obama grabbed a cheeseburger here last year, and former Mayor Thomas M. Menino called to wish the family well Saturday morning.
But to the Manjourides family, the real stars of Charlie’s were the regulars and characters who enriched its long history, who became family. Their portraits are also on the wall at Charlie’s, honored above all.
Of particular note is Cookie, a bookie who was supposedly the restaurant’s first-ever customer and ate at Charlie’s every day until his death about 15 years ago. Stories of his unending con-man antics have become oft-repeated legend: They include once selling Charlie’s, which he did not own, for $3,000, and selling the fender off a car, which did not belong to him — and which was parked in a lot he also did not own but operated without permission.
Longtime regulars know these stories and cherish them. They are part of what make Charlie’s an oasis of the old, grittier South End in a now-heavily gentrified neighborhood, and a figurative oasis of community in a city with an increasingly transient population.
“Nobody connects electronically here. It’s the real thing,” said Louie Zand, 76, who has come to Charlie’s every Saturday for 28 years. “This is an authentic place, and all too many authentic places have gone the way of all flesh.”
Ron Geddes, who has been coming to Charlie’s since 1967, said the magic that sustained Charlie’s was mostly found in the ties between diners.
“This place is really not about the food. That’s the secret,” said Geddes, 72. “It’s about fellowship. It’s about community. . . . This is about being a neighbor and looking forward to seeing people. . . . It’s very personal, it’s very intimate.”
In addition to forming close bonds with the Charlie’s staff and regulars, Geddes and his wife Jan, 64, said they often met travelers from around the world there. One week, the couple would have a rollicking laugh with a commercial pilot for Aer Lingus and his son; the next week, it was an in-depth dissection of health care policy with a Canadian doctor.
“It’s a cheap education, a cheap way to see the world — all over a Saturday morning breakfast,” Jan Geddes said.
The neighborhood around Charlie’s has changed dramatically during its long run, said Manjourides, recalling the days when nearby Dover Street, since renamed East Berkeley Street, was a local synonym for crime.
Until the late 1950s, Charlie’s was open 24 hours. When the family finally changed the hours, no one could find a key to the front door, which had been unlocked for about 30 years.
Manjourides’s 35-year-old son, New York City-based film producer Matt Manjourides, said the restaurant’s staff once kept revolvers bolted every few feet under the counter to deal with troublemakers. When maintenance workers moved an old oven in the 1980s, he recalled, they discovered a sack full of 1950s-era guns left behind by customers, a kind of deadly lost-and-found.
But even as the neighborhood made gains in prosperity and safety, it was losing some of its identity, Matt Manjourides said.
“It used to be a much more diverse, blue-collar crowd,” he said. “Some mechanics from a garage down the street used to come in every day. You had a lot of real neighborhood characters. Now it’s older, white, gentrified.”
In the old days, Charlie’s was an oasis in another sense: Unlike other South End restaurants that were effectively whites-only, it welcomed anyone who could afford their meal (and a few who couldn’t). That kindness is long remembered, even among customers born decades after the end of such segregation. And during the golden age of jazz, it also attracted black musicians and stars, who came for meals after playing gigs at nearby clubs.
Despite the changes around it, including a relatively recent influx of upscale, trendy restaurants, Charlie’s stayed largely the same. And far from becoming a dinosaur, its heritage and authenticity endeared it to a new generation of Bostonians seeking a sense of place, as evidenced by the many younger diners Saturday morning.
From the accounts of his customers, Manjourides’s unshakable belief in the goodness of others was the driving force behind Charlie’s. It is also the thing that will be the most difficult for any restaurateur who takes over the space to replicate. (Manjourides says the family has sold the condos above the restaurant to a developer, but has not decided on the fate of the restaurant space, which his family retains.)
“You can always go find a breakfast spot, but you’re not going to find people like that,” said regular patron and South End native Arthur Simmons, 40. “You can’t buy people skills. You have it or you don’t.”
Legends of Manjourides’s kindness have grown to Cookie-like proportions: Jan Geddes said that when a regular customer recently fell ill and became bedridden, he delivered breakfast to her apartment for months.
“He didn’t send someone; he did it himself,” Geddes said. “That’s who Arthur is.”
Hours after closing Saturday, well-wishers were still knocking on the windows of Charlie’s, wanting to give one last hug or offer a final “thank you.” And so, when Manjourides locked the doors for good Saturday afternoon, Charlie’s closed as it began — a center of community and life in Boston.
“There was always a story,” Manjourides said, remembering his childhood, spent working for his father at the restaurant. “There was always something going on here.”
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