LYNN — Bong and Kwang An will dim the lights and lock the front door of their Campus Coffee Shop for the last time at 2 p.m. Saturday. For 34 years, the couple has operated the 26-seat breakfast and lunch restaurant on Exchange Street, a daily stop for many hankering for a grilled cheese sandwich ($2) or a bowl of oatmeal ($1.85). Retirement awaits.
In its place, the 73 Exchange St. space will soon be home to Nightstage Noodle Bar. Chef Rachel Miller has signed a lease and hopes to have the Vietnamese-American restaurant open by late summer.
Bong — everyone calls her Annie, so we will, too — and Kwang arrived in America from Seoul, South Korea, in 1981 for a better life, a solid education for daughters Hye Young and Hye Rin, and opportunities available in a free country. They had no idea about how to run a business but were willing to work hard. Despite a slow start, they persevered. Before long, their shop was busy every day.
Annie’s sister operated a dry cleaning business in Peabody and for months had tried to persuade the couple to move to the United States. They eventually acceded. Kwang, a skilled craftsman in South Korea, got a job with BASF Corp. Annie waitressed at her brother’s lunch spot in Wenham.
In 1985, they opened Campus Coffee Shop. Kwang did the cooking, and Annie was waitress and genial hostess. Kwang also made the pottery that decorates each table and drew the artwork on the handmade signs on the restaurant wall that enticingly advertise chicken soup ($3.50), bacon/ham/sausage omelette ($5) and more at bargain prices. A 16-ounce cup of iced coffee cost a buck-twenty-five. If you wanted it hot, you’d have to fork over another 15 cents.
Longtime customers have been stopping in regularly since news broke that the Ans are retiring. Annie greets every one by name.
“Thank you. Thank you,” she says, repeatedly.
It’s really a misnomer to call these people customers, they are more like devoted friends who have made a visit to Campus Coffee Shop part of their daily routine. And the Ans care about people, often serving free meals to those down on their luck or providing a welcoming place for those with special needs. Every person was treated the same, whether he or she was president of a downtown bank or a hungry homeless individual.
One customer presented the Ans with a handmade wooden curio featuring a photo of Annie and Kwang and the words “If you want a smile upon your face, drop in at Annie’s place.” For years, customers brought in plants and flowers to fill Kwang’s pottery; Annie’s green thumb helped them flourish. The day we visited, Annie was wearing a beautiful blue necklace, a gift from an artistic customer.
Regulars included City Hall employees, and folks who worked or lived downtown. Bonnie Magistrelli, who was area director of the Seven Hills Foundation, a local non-profit that supports and provides services for persons with disabilities and other life challenges, said Annie literally welcomed her and her clients with open arms.
“They were such an asset to the community,” said Magistrelli. “I have so many happy memories of Annie and Kwang and their coffee shop. They are so kind and understanding. It was a nice gathering place for the disabled in the community. The made everyone feel welcome. I moved to Lynn 22 years ago and spent a lot of time in their place. I’m going to miss it.”
John Pietrowski said he’s been going there forever.
“I might be having a bad day or am a bit blue, but as soon as I walk in the door and am warmly greeted by Annie addressing me as ‘Mister John’ all my melancholy vanishes. Her disposition is always sunny. Annie and Kwang are such down-to-earth, kind people.”
Leo Diantzikis of Lynn and his pal Rick Wardell of Boston, who on Thursday had just finished “a delicious lunch,” were lamenting the shop’s closing.
“I’ve been coming here for about 20 years. I love this place. I don’t know where I’m going to go now,” said Diantzikis, who planned to return for lunch on Friday and Saturday.
He won’t be the only one stopping by. Annie said many customers told her they would pop in before the place closed for good.
The Ans, too, say they will miss seeing and talking with their friends who have supported them all these years.
“You get close,” said Annie. “Thank you. Thank you, to our customers. Our landlord, John Gilberg, is wonderful. We are so lucky.”
Annie and Kwang are enthusiastically looking forward to spending more time with their family and grandchildren. Kwang plans to stay busy creating works of art on his pottery wheel and kiln, and Annie would like to write, read essays, tend to her garden and do yoga. They might even sleep a little later. The coffee shop was open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and Kwang said they’d leave their South Peabody home by 5 p.m. and stay at the shop until 6 or 7 each night, cleaning up and getting ready for the next day.