Greg Novik first unveiled his bagels in public on Jan. 30, 1989, at my father’s shiva. This was typical of Greg. He always brought life to places of silence or sadness.
He did it for nearly three decades at Greg’s Bagels, the shop he and his wife, Kathy, opened at Belvedere Square and kept alive even when the rest of that shopping area was bouncing between economic life and death.
“These are delicious,” everybody told him the night he brought his first big batch of bagels to my father’s shiva. “Where did you pick them up?”
“I didn’t,” he said. “You like them? I just took them out of the oven.”
He and Kathy had pulled an old cookbook off a shelf and baked a few batches until they got it right. A few months later, they were in business. Who could have figured? Before launching into bageldom, there were no signs that he knew anything about baking or business.
Greg was essentially a free spirit. He had the look of a dedicated family man, which he was – Kathy, the wife he adored, and Jenna and Jeff, the two kids he treasured – but there was music, and impishness, and laughter in his every pore.
When we both lived in the Cheswolde neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore – where our daughters were best friends – Greg and I would go for evening walks around the neighborhood. Two adults, and what did we talk about? Old Sgt. Bilko episodes, the Orioles, favorite childhood comics.
Every Halloween, he’d take his kids, and mine, trick-or-treating. They’d leave around dinner time and return maybe the following spring, with enough candy to delight entire squadrons of pediatric dentists.
Some grownups hold onto their inner child; Greg held onto his outer child.
“My whole life,” Kathy said, in the sweetest, most complimentary, wondrous way the day after Greg died last week, at age 71, “I never knew anybody so … unkempt.”
She laughed merrily at the thought of her husband in his dishevelment. It’s good to find reason to smile at moments such as this. Greg always majored in laughter and good cheer.
Before the bagel venture that eventually made him the unofficial mayor of Belvedere Square, he’d been a professional musician (he played piano, bass, saxophone and guitar), an advertising executive, a freelance writer.
Go figure: such an artsy career from a guy who majored in economics at Johns Hopkins University.
But he really found his art form when he and Kathy ran the bagel place. The bagels were terrific, and so was the atmosphere: customers filling the place with their mix of backgrounds melting into a continuous kibitz, mostly led by Greg, his hair all askew, his pants drooping, his battered shoes apparently someone else’s throw-aways.
He reveled in the chaos, even when Belvedere Square itself was a pretty lonely place, almost all the neighboring shops and the market itself shuttered during bleak business times.
But Greg and Kathy endured, right up until the pancreatic cancer that eventually took Greg’s life forced him to sell the place earlier this year.
He was delighted to find a buyer. It wasn’t just the money he could leave his family. He figured there was a legacy – in the bagels and, hopefully, in the atmosphere.
That great mix of people, of laughter and kibitzing, meant the world to Greg. He brought life to every great emptiness.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Top photo: Greg Novik of Greg’s Bagels who passed away on Oct. 11, 2017, at 71. (Photo from Greg’s Bagels Facebook page)
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