CAMBRIDGE — On Monday afternoon, Marc Najarian stood by the door of his store, acting like a pallbearer at his own funeral. “Hi. Ya heard?” he asked his Fresh Pond Market patrons before enveloping them in his arms.
Every grocer knows his expiration dates, and Marc Najarian is no exception. So the septuagenarian and his brother Crosby were busy consoling longtime customers as news spread that their family-owned market in the Huron Village neighborhood of Cambridge would be closing this weekend.
“Oh Marc, what am I going to do, what am I going to do?” customer Barbara Riley wailed, tears brimming, as she embraced him by the checkout counter. “Do you still have chicken? I’m coming in twice this week.”
For almost a century, Fresh Pond Market has been more than a grocery store to this Cambridge enclave. It has been a social hub serving both the professors of Brattle Street and the blue-collar workers who live on the North side of Huron Avenue. And while a great deal has changed in the village — the average home price is currently $1.5 million — the store feels frozen in time.
“Everything is always the same as it’s always been,” Marc Najarian said as he wandered up one of its four aisles.
Marc Najarian, 73, and Crosby Najarian, 68, decided to sell the store while they were still in good health, and plan to travel and spend time with family. The duo listed it for $7 million and say a deal is in the works to sell to the owners of Formaggio Kitchen, the specialty food store that has operated for 40 years up the street. Formaggio’s owners, Ihsan and Valerie Gurdal, were hesitant to say much until a sale is finalized, but the couple has filed paperwork to transfer ownership of the store’s liquor license.
Valerie said she and Ihsan live in the neighborhood and realize the importance of continuing to operate a market in the space.
“We have to make it a marketplace that sells toilet paper and detergent and a butcher shop,” she said. “That’s what’s there, and that’s what the neighborhood wants.”
The 4,000-square-foot store was built by the brothers’ Armenian immigrant grandfather, Nish Semonian, in 1922. His daughter, Margaret, and son-in-law, Leo Najarian, eventually took over the business. (Many locals still refer to it as “Leo’s market.”) Julia Child used to buy meat from the butcher counter. Yo-Yo Ma is a frequent shopper. Musician Peter Wolf and actor John Malkovich often wander in.
The store’s 10 employees greet their regular customers by name, carry groceries to their cars, and make home deliveries if someone’s sick. There are house accounts that have been open for decades. The brothers keep dog biscuits by the front door and hand out boxes of raisins to kids. Marc keeps a stash of $2 bills in his wallet to hand out to customers on their birthdays.
“It’s a regular family,” said John Lavigne, a butcher who works alongside Crosby at the meat counter.
Family is important to the brothers: The market has always closed on Sundays because of a promise they made their mother to keep the day for their home life.
But the shoppers were family, too, and longtime customers were not reassured to learn that another market might be coming.
“This is a disaster,” lamented Philip Kistler, who wore a Fresh Pond Market baseball cap. He has shopped here for 50 years, he said, and frequents Fresh Pond Market despite living in Belmont.
“I don’t care if I lived in Lexington, or Brookline, it doesn’t matter,” he said “It’s the best. Would you rather mosey around Star? Come on.”
“Star is a four-letter word,” Marc joked about the far-bigger grocery chain. (This was in jest: Back in Armenia, Marc’s grandfather was the landlord to Sarkis Mugar, Star Market’s founder. When both started out in the grocery business in the United States they often bought at the same wholesale markets, and Nish Semonian became close friends with Sarkis’s son.)
He said he had mixed feelings about closing the business. It has been “100 percent consistent,” despite changes in the industry. But it was time.
“Amazon doesn’t really affect us. You’ve got one of the biggest Star Market and Whole Foods down the road, and Trader Joe’s right there,” he said. “But they all still like coming to Fresh Pond Market. It must be my good looks, huh?”
The brothers have worked in tandem for six decades, often for 60 or 70 hours a week. Marc, the general manager, handles the front of the house, kibitzing with customers and ordering the wine, while Crosby works in the back, butchering in his whites.
They’ve made some changes over time: There are more prepared foods. Cauliflower crackers and gluten-free organic pasta are stocked alongside the Ritz boxes and jars of Ragu. They’ve upgraded the meat department with more high-end cuts. They used to sell fish only on Fridays, but now daily fish sales are booming.
The pair said their parents and grandparents instilled a commitment to service in them that has kept the business successful all these years.
“My mother always said to treat the customers like company coming into your house,” Marc said.
Nobody was ready to say goodbye to the brothers Najarian; many said they planned to come in all week. But they probably would have anyway.
“People come here for the food, but this is the village general store; it was the antidote to ‘Bowling Alone,’ ” said Paul Buttenwieser, a local psychiatrist, author, and philanthropist. “We’re all in mourning.”
The brothers said they didn’t want to hand off the store to the next generation, because they wanted an easier life for their kids.
Crosby’s son, Jonathan Najarian, an English professor at Boston University (and an excellent meat cutter, his dad said), came by the store that afternoon to take in the scene. He slid in behind the register to check out customers without thinking.
“It’s very strange,” he said. “I told them a while ago, I said, ‘Before you guys do anything come talk to me.’ But they didn’t want me to.”
“I don’t want you working like this,” Crosby said.
Some customers worried that Formaggio’s higher-end fare might push out everyday items. But the brothers were optimistic about the new ownership.
“It will be good for the neighborhood,” Marc said. “We didn’t want to put a CVS or a national chain in here. We wanted to have a local store.”
Neighbors are planning a party for the owners this weekend. They left a guest book for customers to share their memories. By 3 p.m. on Monday, more than 30 pages had been filled with anecdotes: tales of dragging groceries home by sled during the Blizzard of ’78, Leo’s generosity when paychecks were tight, Christmas dinners with Crosby’s tenderloins.
“FPM has anchored a community for generations,” one patron wrote.
“You and Crosby and the whole FPM family and crew have been excellent stewards of a way of life. A better way whose spirit must be preserved.”
But a child named Toby, using wobbly penmanship and pink highlighter, may have put it best: “This place wuz good.”