Many years ago as a boy Ray Prather remembers taking a nickel into Ye Olde Briar Shoppe in downtown Vallejo, giving the coin to a larger-than-life figure behind the counter and leaving with a lot more than bubble gum. What he took away was also a warm glow from the smile and generosity of the funny, jolly fellow behind the counter.
Prather can’t recall a time in the downtown without Christ Pappakostas and his cozy tobacco shop at 624 Marin St., just around the corner from his family’s own business, Victory Stores, on Virginia Street. In fact, tobacconist Pappakostas is marking his 40th year in downtown Vallejo, a major feat for some, given all the area’s changes and economic challenges. “He’s one of the last of the old-timers down here.
Christ Pappakostas walks past jars of blended tobbaco which he mixes himself. The Ye Olde Briar Shoppe is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
I have a lot of respect for someone who can stick it out in downtown Vallejo as long as he has,” said Fred Menard, fellow downtown merchant at Indian Alley Antiques.
Victory Stores, has been in the downtown longer, 68 years, but it’s been run by three generations of family members, Prather said. By contrast, Pappakostas has run his shop himself solo all these years.
Pappakostas, indeed, may be one of the last old-timers left in the downtown, a number which dwindled with the September death of Richard Lemke, long-time operator of the Mr. Ric’s clothing store across the street..
Protest over retirement
Now 76, Pappakostas said he tried to retire last year but loyal customers complained so much he decided to stay open a little longer, despite several health ailments, including bad knees, partial blindness, difficulty walking and a heart condition.
That’s OK by Vallejo artist Tex Allen, who stopped in at Ye Olde Briar recently with a few friends to buy cigarettes. As part of the transaction they got to chat with Pappakostas, laugh at his jokes, plus look at the cluttered shop.
In the early 1970s when he set up shop, the area still had department stores with soda fountains, fancy clothing stores and movie theaters, plus steady business from Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
Dozen of cigar boxes, some over 40 years old, sit on display inside the Ye Olde Briar Shoppe in downtown Vallejo.(Chris Riley/Times-Herald)
That all changed when malls and large shopping centers opened in Fairfield, Concord and north of town which drew business out of the downtown, Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum Director Jim Kern said.
“He represents the old, thriving downtown Vallejo,” said Central Core Restoration Corporation Executive Coordinator Erin Bakke. “He’s a friendly face and he knows everything about the downtown.”
These days, Pappakostas is hopeful about new downtown changes, particularly dozens of artists taking up space inside the Temple Art Lofts (the former Masonic Lodge) and in many commercial retail spots on Georgia, Virginia and Marin streets.
Pappakostas has seen a lot over the years, recalling that downtown nearly dried up after closure of Mare Island in 1996. He also remembers days when the only open business on the street were his and Lemke’s. When Pappakostas opened in 1973 there was no such tobacco shop in town, and Pappakostas wanted to fill the void, recalled long-time Vallejoan Fred Sessler.
He opened on May 8, 1973. Pappakostas was once a big smoker himself, but gave up the habit a few years ago. He jokingly points out a “No smoking” sign on his door.
He followed somewhat in his father’s steps. Luis Pappakostas owned and ran the Navy Liquor Store in the 300 block of Tennessee Street for 24 years before his death in 1967. A native of Greece, he and his family emigrated in 1912. The family moved to Vallejo from Wisconsin when Christ was 7.
Christ Pappakostas first set up shop inside the Casa de Vallejo when it was still a hotel, and stayed there for about a year. Then he moved into Lemke’s building across Marin Street from his current location and stayed there four years before setting up shop in what had been McCainn’s Jewlers.
But, the tobacco shop is not the only mark Pappakostas has made in Vallejo.
Good times at the Sardine Can
A year after he opened up his tobacco shop, he also opened and ran the Sardine Can restaurant which was, at that time, at the end of a gravel driveway.
For eight years, Pappakostas ran the Sardine Can and cooked the meals. He became known for his Greek Chili and as a colorful character who enjoyed people and having a good time — holding chili cook-offs, and bringing in live music and belly dancers, according to a Times-Herald article.
He said he closed the restaurant due to health problems, and began focusing more on the Chamber of Commerce and other affairs, plus his tobacco shop.
But he’s never forgotten such Sardine Can memories as one about a streaker who ran through the restaurant shortly after it opened. Someone, he recalled, told then Mayor Florence Douglas about the incident and she often teased him that the streaker must have been him. He still laughs about it.
Laughter, good times and friends have long been part of Pappakostas’ life. And while many know him for tobacco, Pappakostas is also respected for his generosity to civic organizations, charities trying to help the poor and needy and to downtown organizations raising money for beautification efforts.
“He loves Vallejo,” said long-time friend and fellow Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church member Deme Stall Nash.
Not all up in smoke
Never married and without children, he said he is not sure if there will be anyone to pass on his store or his secrets and knowledge as a long-time tobacconist. He likes to joke that he simply “forgot to retire,” but it’s more that he still enjoys spending his days in the downtown, meeting people and serving his customers. With a tell-tale twinkle in his eyes, he says he likes where he’s at and believes good things are on the way for the downtown. “It’s not bad down here. You see a lot of new people coming in. I’m hopeful,” he said.
Ye Olde Briar Shoppe is at 624 Marin St. in downtown Vallejo, and is open noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.