For nearly three decades, Greg’s Bagels has claimed a cozy sliver of Belvedere Square. It’s housed in a 1,800-square-foot space along a strip of bustling shops and restaurants, the livelihood of its founder, Greg Novik, who along with his wife, Kathleen, established a community staple.
But the square lost its treasured unofficial mayor when the charismatic and quick-witted Greg died Wednesday at 71 from pancreatic cancer.
The Noviks turned the shop into more than just a hangout spot. Longtime customers say they feel more of a sense of community at Greg’s Bagels than they do at other eateries in Baltimore. The groundswell of love is a testament to Greg, who resided in the highly populated Jewish Cheswolde neighborhood.
“When I was looking for a place to live and start my family with my husband, I wanted to be within walking distance of Greg’s Bagels,” said Samantha Gendler, a Greg’s Bagels regular who resides in Mount Washington. “That’s how much I love this place. It’s one of those gritty, old-school and classic Baltimore places.”
Gendler, 32, who started frequenting the shop 15 years ago as a college student at Towson University, said she was hit hard when she heard the news.
But even in death, Greg’s legacy lives in his greatest loves: the business he built and the gathering place established inside it.
Every nook and cranny of Greg’s Bagels is lined with black-and-white tile and sealed in family. The shop has maintained the test of time as a mom-and-pop pocket. Though the shop closed briefly last year after Greg stepped away following his cancer diagnosis and eventually changed hands, the home-away-from-home atmosphere endures under new owner Tommy Hearn, customers say.
David Alima, a longtime patron, saw the indomitable passion of Greg on full display when he was posted up behind the counter, set up in the kitchen and rang people up at the register. He said he will continue to feel Greg’s presence each time he sets foot in the shop, because he was just too luminescent to forget.
“He was everywhere,” Alima said. “You couldn’t escape him.”
Growing up, Alima, 38, who lives within walking distance of Greg’s Bagels, held Greg in the highest respect. He considered him a celebrity. As an adult, Alima drew inspiration from Greg when he started his own business selling delectable treats at local ice cream shop The Charmery.
“He’s just someone who would never let go,” Alima said. “He was a fighter. He loved his business and never wanted to let go. Seeing his legacy continue the way it has is the best thing that could have happened to the shop.”
Greg always loved to make people feel at home, Alima recalled. His care for others was the defining characteristic of his relationships with friends, patrons and his employees.
As an owner and a friend, Greg greeted everyone who walked through the door. He never forgot the faces of his customers. He would chat with them for minutes at a time, even if they were there just to grab a bagel on the go.
Greg also took a genuine interest in other people’s lives, no matter who they were.
“He was Jewish, and he was quirky,” Gendler said. “Whenever my husband and I would come in, Greg would say, ‘Young lovers’ super loud. It just made you feel special.”
Gendler knew she could always count on Greg to greet her with that message. Always.
In the rare instances he took off, there would be a handwritten note on the door, a personal touch that was more comforting and meaningful than a typed message.
“That’s just who he was,” said Gendler, who visits the shop at least once a week with her husband, Tim, 35, and 3-month-old daughter Liora. “He was a low-key, T-shirt kind of guy who made you feel right at home.”
Perhaps a reflection of Greg’s quirky personality, the bagel flavors are quite eclectic. Gendler’s favorite is the everything bagel, called the “colossal.” Alima’s is the toasted chocolate chip butter.
Greg, a Cleveland native who graduated from Johns Hopkins University, was more than just a bagel man. He was a family man, a musician, a writer, an advertising executive and a man of the people, according to reports.
In addition to his wife, Greg is survived by a son, Jeffrey; a daughter, Jenna; and several grandchildren.
There will be no funeral, and plans for a memorial gathering celebrating his life are still in the works, according to reports.