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Posted at 8:07 AM ET, 02/26/2011

One last Valentine's Day at Tony's Place

By Chris Earnshaw, Washington

“You are special,” Tony Boudouvas growled to one of his regulars this Feb. 14. It was the final of 33 Valentine’s Days at Tony’s Place, and noontime was a flood of humanity at the corner shack of 20th and I streets NW. Tony, his wife, Anastasia, helper R.A., and at least four of his five children flew about the tiny shop, boxing and wrapping at a furious pace. Amid the tumult of Orthodox Christian icons, calendars and quaint glassware and china knickknacks, it was apparent that American Beauty roses with a delicate white and a spray of asparagus fern were the order of the day.

Tony was bearing his customary “nothing bothers me” demeanor as he reached out to the customers, but he still seemed a bit peeved. Was it his pending retirement, or the maybe the dismal economy? No, it was something far more personal.

“Stole it!” he sighed.

“Sold it,” his son Costa interceded.

“No, somebody stole my dadgum Valentine cupid! My own special sign,” Tony lamented. Tony adored the kooky, folk-art Cupid, with a slightly bent bow and arrow, limned in a zigzag, concentric red-and-black series of hearts. It had been crafted by John Sarris, one of the many homeless he helped out over three decades. “John was a genius, he wrote a book never published, very sad.”

Likewise, there was Scary Terry, a onetime engineer who, with a bad arm, scaled the roof and painted a European-style mural of a cart and blossoms, and One-Eyed Bill, who faithfully “ran” bouquets, “except when he had his moods,” Tony recalled. Of course, in a pinch, Tony or one of his kids would hand-carry orders to the fancy offices, hotels and GWU reception desks themselves.

Tony has much to be proud of. In 2000, President Clinton selected the entire Boudouvas family to appear at the White House Rose Garden, as representative of “working people contributing to the nation’s economic well-being.”

“Goodness, I stayed up the night before practicing my speech before the president, I was so nervous.” Asked how it went the following day, Tony replied, “Oh, fine — no problems at all!”

Tony and his family will surely miss the simple corner store he acquired from a friend, Louis, once he arrived from Manhattan (“I had stands at Grand Central, Second and 45th, came to U.S. at 13!”), just as this city will miss the folksy, caring spot that was Tony’s Place.

By Chris Earnshaw, Washington  | February 26, 2011; 8:07 AM ET
Categories:  D.C., economy  
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