The music was louder than usual inside. But no one had tampered with the volume knob. That hadn’t changed since December 13th 1979, when John Zawisny, along with his dad and brother, opened Eagle Provisions at 628 5th Avenue. Real estate agencies have come to call the neighborhood South Slope, but 35 years ago, the area on and around 18th Street in Brooklyn was just another enclave of city dwellers paying cheap rent. And like most pockets of urban environments, this one was comprised of folks from like heritage. In this case, Polish. The Zawisnys setup shop and began selling provisions to sustain this community.
Just inside the door to the right was always a pile of the day's papers. Across from that was an ATM, a small plastic garbage can, and a stack of mismatched grocery baskets. Behind that was an array of plants, most of which hung from the ceiling. Under them was an ice chest and a triad of things that was never different on any of my visits: a stool, an open newspaper, and a cup of tea. They were frozen in time, unless John Zawisny was sitting on the stool leafing through the paper and sipping his tea. But he rarely was, because he was often fielding phone calls and engaging with patrons that he has known for decades.
Despite the test of time, ever-increasing prices and a rising demand in real estate molded the neighborhood into something that could no longer sustain business.
“People are only coming once or twice a week now,” Zawisny told me, just days before he’d step foot inside the store for the last time. “It’s not sustainable anymore. It's time to retire." The Zawisnys bought the building in 1979 for $65,000. The building sold in March for $7.5 million. The reason the music was louder on my last visit was that the 7,500-square-foot space was nearly empty. Eagle Provisions closed its doors for good Saturday May 16th, 2015.
I moved to the neighborhood in 2008. I made countless bikerides to Eagle since then and I always took an empty backpack, to fill with fresh-baked rye, homemade sausages and kielbasa, bacon (always the double smoked) and other smoked meats, steak, pork shoulders, tenderloins and other poultry, potato salad, pierogies, 32oz jars of tomatoes, produce, horseradish, Polish mustards etc. I still haven’t found Italian sausage better anywhere else in the city, and I’m afraid to go camping without a pound of that bacon in my pack to render over the morning’s coals after a night of other campfire feasting.
Oh, there was beer too. Nowhere in the city could you find a selection like Eagle's. That beer room was paradise. Hop heads argued that shelf life and freshness were a concern. But who cares. There was over 1,000 varieties. Two-by-fours fastened eight feet off the floor kept metal shelves from buckling under the weight of the inventory. Zawisny, privy to the city’s trending tastes for beer and eager to provide for his (contemporary) community, made sure Evil Twin, Mikkeller, West Brook, Maine Beer Co, Stillwater, the latest Dogfish Head collaborations, international Trappist and Rauchbier beers, rare six packs of cans, and seasonal brews were always in stock. Until May 2nd that is, when the store nearly sold out after tweeting that their beer would all go on sale at 50% off (along with dairy and frozen food) starting Friday, May 1st. "There was a line of people waiting to get in at 6 o'clock," Zawisny said. The beer room was empty by Sunday.
I only ever went to Eagle Provisions alone. The store's four walls captured a timeless atmoshpere representative of Anywhere, USA, and I was always too keen on this to share with anyone. In a city that moves fast and changes faster, I found solace knowing there was a world nearby, just over the BQE, at the corner of 5th and 18th, that I could enter through an old metal door and be completely removed from everything. For now, the building remains as-is, untouched by development. But that door will no longer open and the city has made another ghost of one man's sanctuary.