Barry Mauskopf seemed more unnerved last Friday by a neighborhood party in his honor than with closing his MacArthur Boulevard grocery store after 34 years.
"Do I deserve it?" he barked in a thick Czechoslovakian accent. "These people are my customers. They patronized me. They kept me in business for more than 30 years. The idea is crazy!"
Mauskopf, 69, operates a small corner grocery store in Palisades, a pleasant, old-fashioned neighborhood in upper Northwest about one mile from the city's boundary with Maryland.
The market at 5100 MacArthur Blvd. is a neighborhood centerpiece. Brown-bricked on the outside, inner wood walls decorated with bright beer and soft drink slogans from the '40s and '50s, the store reflects the same old-world charm as the man himself. Short, white-haired and impish-looking behind thick black glasses, he moved about the store grumbling about the party, all the time serving a steady stream of friendly customers.
"How are you, Charlie?" he nodded toward a shopper who had been followed inside by a quartet of enthusiastic schoolboys who promptly raided the candy rack. "Go ahead, Mike, you owe me a nickel," Mauskopf told one of them, then resumed his complaining.
"My wife is mad as hell about this party. She says people live here 30, 40, 50 years and cause no fuss. Who the hell are we to deserve this?"
Mauskopf's customers simply laughed off his objections.
"He sure does deserve it," said Charles Hopkins, a retired Air Force accountant. "The man is an institution. He's honest. . . . There is no one around here who doesn't have a story to tell about him."
Mauskopf stories flowed when more than 100 neighborhood residents gathered on Sunday at a restaurant across from the store to commiserate about the closing.
"I've lived in this neighborhood for 53 years," said Mary Beal. "Barry has been wonderful for the last 30 of them. He's always helped out with the Palisades community Fourth of July parade. He's donated catsup, mustard and many other things."
"I'll give you an idea of Barry's standing around here," said retired Methodist minister Charles Rossiter. "Somebody lost a notebook once. It was something extremely important. People said 'Don't worry about it. Someone will turn it in to Barry.' And sure enough, someone did."
Adoption specialist Gene Tweraser journeyed from Arkansas for the affair. "I was a little girl when he first came here. When I grew up and got married, I had to support my husband while he was a grad student at A.U. Barry let me borrow groceries for a whole year."
Also present were Mauskopf's wife, Regina, and their two children, Norman, 35, a photographer in Pasadena, Calif., and Rosalind, 27, a New York City deputy district attorney. They supplied background about their father. He refused to talk about himself.
According to them, Mauskopf had been an apprentice grocer in Czechoslovakia at the outbreak of World War II. He and his wife were concentration camp survivors. His wife still has her identification number tattooed on her arm. They married in Europe and came to America in 1948. They lived for two years in Brooklyn, where Norman was born. The family then moved to Washington.
Mauskopf got a job as a delivery boy at the store on MacArthur Blvd. and was made a business partner three years later. In another five years, he had bought out his partners and moved the family into the apartment above the store, where he and his wife still live. They will move after the new operators take over in mid-November.
Two years ago, Mauskopf was struck by a car while walking across K Street downtown. The store remained closed for six months. "It was like a morgue around here," said another guest.
Norman Mauskopf believes his father began considering retirement then because he realized he was slowing down. The younger Mauskopf believes another reason for his father's retirement is his growing disenchantment with produce suppliers.
In a daily 30-year-old ritual, Mauskopf visits food warehouses at 5 a.m. to buy the best meats and vegetables for his customers. Recently, Mauskopf's high standards have not been met, his son said.
His customers, however, believe they have never received anything but the best from Mauskopf, and they regarded the party as a small thank you for his years of service.