Before Sheila and Charlie Flathers sat down for dinner and a couple of cold beers at Papa's Pizza Wednesday night, they seriously pondered over the specials that weren't on the menu - a thick wooden table for $120 or a chair for 15 bucks.
The noisy pizza joint on Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs closes down tomorrow, leaving regulars like Mr. and Mrs. Flathers from Vineyard Haven to savor the memories and grasp for a keepsake.
"We don't really need the furniture," said Mrs. Flathers,"but it's for our oldest son. He's really upset. Our kids have been coming here for almost 25 years. It's a shame."
Bill Cleary has been hearing such laments for the last couple weeks, ever since he decided he can't afford another summer running Papa's Pizza. His biggest expense: septic pump-outs, which cost him $36,000 last year alone. The year before that it was $24,000.
Plus, he was hoping to buy the building from landlord Primo Lombardi, who started Papa's back in 1978 and ran it for 14 years before selling the business to Mr. Cleary. The asking price of $1.4 million for the building, he said, was just too much for him to make the numbers work.
"The only people making good money are the landlord and people who've been in business a long, long time," he said. "I have customers crying in my dining room and a long-standing group of employees looking for a new job."
For Mr. Cleary, it's also a case of bad timing. If the Oak Bluffs wastewater project had stayed on schedule, Papa's could have hooked up to sewer lines this summer and realized savings in wastewater costs. Now, the sewer system won't be up and running until late September.
And one of the anchors for the top end of Circuit avenue could sit empty for the season. Mr. Lombardi said if he can't lease it or sell the building by September, he and his wife, Mary, the pizza mavens at The Chilmark Store, will come back down to Papa's and open it up again for the off-season.
That promise, though, is doing little to ease the mourning at Papa's this week.
"It's always been a fantastic family place, a great place for kids," said Deborah Mayhew of West Tisbury, who came out for dinner with her 9-year-old daughter, Katie Ann. "There are so many high-priced, chichi restaurants here, the locals can't afford to eat out anymore. There aren't many left that cater to families and stay open year-round."
For decades, Papa's was the place to go for Friday night dinner, sports banquets and birthday parties. For a while, they even opened up their kitchen to preschool field trips, giving tykes a lesson in making pizzas.
And for summer people, the loss of Papa's will likely come as a blow, said longtime employee Lisa Burke. "They'll have quite a shock. Ocean Park's a war-zone, the historic house has burned down and now Papa's is gone," she said.
To Jib Ellis, who stopped in to pick up a grinder Wednesday, "It's the end of an era." He worried for the Island teens, asking "What are the Clearasil people going to do?"
Some folks wondered whether the decision a few months ago to turn Papa's into a full-service restaurant - with waitresses, instead of counter service - could have hastened its demise. Fred Sonnenberg, who lives in the Camp Ground, speculated that the change could well have driven away the teenagers who were willing to part with a few bucks for a slice and a soda, but may have been intimidated by having to sit down, place an order and then leave a tip.
Employees definitely got feedback. "Customers either loved it, or they hated it," said one. "Some people boycotted."
Besides the feedback, employees are simply processing the end of a chapter. For Ms. Burke, it's been 16 years working the counter. What's kept her there that long?
"It's a great social job," she said. "You work with great people and meet great people over the counter."
Not even the noise bothered her. "Illumination Night, the fireworks, the Pops, it was sheer insanity in here," she said. "You couldn't hear yourself think."
Nilton DeSouza, the cook for the last five years, learned how to speak English working in the kitchen. "I love it here," he said. "It's like a family here."
Mr. DeSouza would cook up special pizzas for his coworkers, white pizzas with Ricotta cheese, spinach and zucchini, or garlic and artichoke hearts. "He had some great combinations," said Ms. Burke.
Leah Miranda quit last fall after 17 years on the job and now works retail down the street at Basics. "It was a big part of my life," she said. "My children were both brought up in Papa's." There were lots of management changes over the years, but what she remembers most are the regulars like the "coffee guys," a group of old-timers who would gather in the morning at Linda Jean's and in the afternoon at Papa's. "They were there from the beginning," she said. "Every day at 3 o'clock."