To Jim Torcom, it was a funky piece of art.
The old Colonial-style wooden sign for a “Harry’s Restaurant” caught his eye when a man was trying to peddle it to a Lady’s Island antique shop. He paid a couple of hundred dollars for it and hung it over his bed at his home in Pigeon Point.
“I love old signs,” he said. “Have you ever watched ‘American Pickers’? I like informational signs, fun signs.”
Torcum got a good eye for art. He’s an artist. And he runs the Starving Artist Market on Paris Avenue in Port Royal on Saturday mornings, with the new season starting April 16.
He bought the sign about four months ago. Recently, someone who came to see his home told him what he had.
He had a sign that hung for decades high on the front of a Bay Street restaurant, which was more like a social institution in the heart of Beaufort.
What he had was a slice in time.
It was a time when Harry Chakides ran a popular eating and meeting place. He was there from the moment he got out of The Citadel in 1960 until he closed shop and retired nine years ago. That’s when the sign came down and Harry told the worker to put it by the back door and he’d pick it up. Forty-five minutes later, the sign was gone, and it stayed gone until Torcom discovered what he had and called Chakides to come see it.
Torcom is giving the sign to Harry, who said it may go to his son, or be placed at home wherever his wife, Jane, allows.
For Beaufort, the story runs much deeper. Harry’s father ran a restaurant called the Ritz Cafe there from 1935 until he died in 1960. When Harry started his business, he was 22 and William Scheper loaned him the money from The Peoples Bank. Harry said when they met on the street, Mr. Scheper would grunt if there wasn’t much money in his bank account. But if Harry had some money in the bank, he’d say, “Hello, boy.”
In 1973, Harry remodeled the upstairs and opened the John Cross Tavern. The view from a front window made Bay Street down below look like an Edward Hopper painting. It had its own sign, with a pirate pointing up its creaky steps. Harry asked a man nursing a drink at the bar to make the sign for him. He was an art teacher at Beaufort High School.
Newspaper people gathered there to shake off the drama of one day and pick up material for the next. One night a Marine’s wife took home Richard Brooks’ blue sports coat by mistake, taking his story with her, as well as his car keys. So Harry and Richard are outside in the dead of night breaking into his car with a coat hanger when the police ride by without saying a word.
Walter Cronkite ambled in one night. America’s father figure was boating down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway out Harry’s back door. Harry and Walter got a drink and Harry squired him around town to show him the way it is in Beaufort.
On the walls were photographs of other notable guests, like Nick Nolte.
But it was Harry’s where the movers and shakers of a town that didn’t move or shake that often settled in for coffee each morning at 8 o’clock. Pat Conroy put it in his books. And Harry still likes to tell its stories.
“Mr. Bush would ride a bicycle down to the restaurant every day and get his coffee and go home,” Harry said. “He was a typesetter at The Beaufort Gazette when it was on Hamar Street. Mr. Bush loved guns. He would bring them in to show me. One time he brought in a machine gun. It was water-cooled. An FBI agent heard about it and went to his house and told Mr. Bush he could keep the machine gun, he just had to register it. After that, he sold all his guns.”
Harry’s had two places where men about town flocked. One was called “The Roundtable” and the other was “The Booth of Knowledge.”
Harry likes the time they got into a discussion about how flies land on a ceiling. Somebody called the colonel in charge of the Marine Corps Air Station for an answer, but got a good cussing.
Beaufort County Sheriff Ed McTeer, the white witch doctor and high sheriff of the Lowcountry, was such a piece of Harry’s that Harry was a pall bearer at his funeral.
McTeer wrote a beautiful poem about the slice of time that is Harry’s. It’s in his book, “Adventure in the Woods and Waters of the Lowcountry.” I hope it lasts longer than the funky wooden sign now rescued by the starving artist.
McTeer called it “The Vacant Chair” and this is how it ends:
I can well remember,
The year I’m not quite sure,
But I was a very young man
When I walked through this same door.
Sitting around the table
Were the old men of the town.
An empty chair was waiting there.
They said, “Ed, won’t you sit down?”
So I sat there amongst them
And I saw them fade away.
Now I’m the senior member
And soon someone will say,
“There’s a vacant chair at the table,
Come sit with us today.”