High school sweethearts and familiar faces around Libby, Paulette and Gary Njirich this year celebrate 45 years of marriage and 23 years working together as the owners of Libby Cafe.
But, in a surprise announcement last week, the couple told their employees and customers that their last day of business will be April 30 due to the economic downturn and their advancing ages.
“There’s one regular guy we haven’t told yet, but we’ll make sure he knows, or the gossip mill will,” laughed Paulette.
Some of those regulars who line up at the counter almost daily refer to themselves as “rooster row.” “There are a couple of hens, too,” added Loretta Brown, a regular since 2009 who hails from San Diego.
Earl Stanley, who has been coming to Libby Cafe in its various incarnations since 1946, said he’s worried about the cafe closing down.
“I don’t know what we’ll do, lie down on the train tracks?” said Leo Marnell, who, along with Loretta, comes to the cafe nearly every day. “It’s a ritual, and a fun way to start the day, Libby Cafe in the morning” said Brown. “It’s so much fun coming in and knowing the waitress and the owners and everyone here.”
From behind its iconic wooden storefront set back from Mineral Avenue, the cafe has seen a lot of Libby’s history. Built in 1944 with lumber milled locally, it used to be known as the Surprise Cafe. The proof is in the basement shelves the Njirichs built using the cafe’s original solid wooden signs.
The couple fell into the restaurant business because Paulette was born into it.
“It was because of her,” Gary said, pointing to his wife with a smile. “And we enjoyed cooking together at home so we thought it could work.”
Paulette recalled a story that her mom was cooking fish at the family restaurant all day Friday and gave birth to Paulette Saturday. “Mom couldn’t eat fish for five years after that,” she said. Paulette also remembers “blue plate specials” from eateries of the era and simpler menus than today’s. “Then it was hamburgers, one with, one without, and it would just mean onions because that’s all that was on them.”
The decision to close shop was a long and difficult process for the couple.
“Number one is that it’s been a hard winter,” Paulette said. “Number two is that we’re getting old.”
“Getting?” Gary chimed in. “Didn’t that already happen?”
Responding to a compliment about how well she is aging, Paulette patted her cheeks and laughed. “I tell everyone it’s the french fry grease,” she said.
The Njirichs remember 1993 to 1999 as profitable times, their cafe packed with hungry mill workers and their families six days a week. “Even after the mill shut down, there were a few years when there was money to retrain the mill workers and it was all still OK,” Gary said.
Riding the waves over the years has required flexibility. The cafe has gone from hiring 10 staff and having 3 waitresses on the floor in its busiest periods to now having three or four part-time staff and one waitress.
Paulette said hard economic times were disheartening, not least because of how they affected their workers.
“It’s hard to maintain good staff because we can’t give them anything, no vacation or insurance,” Paulette said.
While remaining upbeat in tone, Gary and Paulette mourn for the more lively and prosperous Libby they remember.
“We used to do barbecue on the street and cook ribs right out front,” Gary said. “We did it for the car show, Logger’s Day, Nordicfest, hoop fest, even the Irish Festival. Those events used to be big, and then it all died away.”
“You need young people to go to these things,” Paulette said. “But now they’re too involved with their phones to continue traditions.”
Working and living together is not for everyone, but the Njirichs have made it work.
“He’s my best buddy,” Paulette said of Gary. “And my worst enemy because he tells me how I really am.”
After dating in high school, the two lost track of one another. They met again 11 years later in Jamestown, California while they were both divorcing other people. Paulette was working in the records office of a prison, so Gary loves to tell everyone he met her in prison. “I saw her across the prison cafeteria and I was looking for a ring,” Gary said with a smile.
The couple plans to wait and see what retirement brings, but their first step will be getting re acquainted with home life.
“We’ve really never lived in our house,” Paulette said. “We just go there to sleep and shower, so we’re looking forward to actually living there.”
“We’re trying to figure out how to fit a commercial kitchen into our kitchen because we’re used to cooking on commercial-sized appliances,” Gary said.
As the Njirichs move into a new life phase, Libby will miss seeing the cafe’s sign on the sidewalk and walking into a familiar place to grab a coffee and a homemade muffin.