The In Crowd 

It's been bringing friends together for 75 years. But soon it could be Cozy Corner's last call.

Geary was in her 80s and still stopping into Cozy Corner daily for a Miller Lite when, on a day like any other, a friend from the bar drove her home and she died that night. "She was a fixture here," recalls one patron, "and everybody took care of her."

For 75 years people have been coming to the South Side haunt tucked in at the corner of German School and Glenway roads to unwind, to talk, to eat, to drink and to just hang out. Simply showing up is a sign of good faith and, more or less, good health. Those who enter seem deserving of both, having worked a hard day or, longer still, a hard life.

But Cozy Corner's days are numbered. A project slated by the Virginia Department of Transportation to widen the road in front of the neighborhood restaurant will slice it right through, turning its cinderblock to shavings.

There's no way around it, says Dawn Eichen, a VDOT spokeswoman. German School Road, the once sleepy connector of Jahnke Road and Midlothian Turnpike, has narrowly survived for the better part of a century while its traffic has swollen to more than what two snaking lanes can stand.

In the next month or so, Eichen says, representatives of VDOT's right-of-way division will approach Cozy Corner's owner, Bobby Lloyd, about the particulars. VDOT plans to advertise the work to contractors in 2008. But before then, as is customary, she says, VDOT will offer Lloyd fair-market value for the property and the business, and with any luck the two parties will negotiate an agreement.

"Relocation doesn't mean leaving the neighborhood," Eichen points out. In Cozy Corner's case, it couldn't. Its roots are entangled in the neighborhood. And as Geary's wish attests, a move to any other ground may mean only one thing.

"Everybody has their reason for coming in here," Kathy Parker says. For Parker, it's health-related and therapeutic. She and her husband, Eddie, along with her son and his new wife, have come from the suburbs of Chesterfield County to Cozy Corner on a Friday night before Christmas. They come for karaoke. Eddie Parker, who is barely pushing 50, had open-heart surgery last year.

"The first thing the doctor said [to Eddie] was get a hobby and get it right away," Kathy Parker says. The couple used to dance, she adds, but healing her husband's heart has placed that pastime on hold. Now Eddie Parker sings karaoke instead. He likes it best at Cozy Corner, he says, adding that oftentimes they bring his mother, who typically "wouldn't be caught dead in any beer joint."

The Parkers don't drink or smoke, although the second-hand stuff is everywhere. He drinks water; she drinks ginger ale. They sit at a large, round plywood table, surrounded by family and friends they've come to know on a first-name basis — the only way folks are known at Cozy Corner.

Inside, the mood is festive and the Christmas sweaters aplenty. The low hum of chatter seems to melt into the sounds of country music playing on the jukebox. Strands of white lights rim the ceiling and lend the ancient mounted taxidermy — a bear and two deer heads — and pictures of Gen. Robert E. Lee a warm glow. Kathy Parker reckons she's been coming to the restaurant since 1963 when she was 5. "My mom used to bring me," she says. "Not at night but at lunch."

While Eddie Parker performs welcome renditions of ballads by Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, his wife sways and smiles approvingly from the dance floor. She beckons other patrons to join her — and a handful do.

While it's not quite certain when Cozy Corner became such, other than oral history vowing it was built with a gas pump and outhouse in 1928 or 1929, old-timers say Bernice and Fermen Lowe gave it wings. The Middlesex County couple bought the low-roofed nook in 1941 because it had a stove, a beer license and potential. By early accounts, the Lowes made the most of all three.

They put a second story on the building and tapped it as home. In time, the senior Fermen had all but drunk himself to death, regulars say, and his son, Fermen Jr., was well in line to call the shots. That is, if Mama Lowe — and everybody called Bernice "Mama" — would let him. Turns out she didn't, choosing to keep her duties as Cozy's matriarch. Fermen Jr. developed diabetes and lost his feet to the disease, patrons say. The proprietor's role eventually fell to Fermen Jr.'s son, Fermen III, or Martin, as he was called, and he "didn't want any part of the place," owner Lloyd says.

Going back generations is inevitable at Cozy Corner. In its early days, the woods around it were thick and the country quiet. A community of saltbox houses that still dots the landscape was largely constructed from scraps of old army barracks, Lloyd says. And everyone at Cozy Corner seems to know that German School Road got its name because it led to a schoolhouse serving mostly German immigrants. According to Lloyd, Mama Lowe kept her off-premises license to sell wine almost solely for the German adults who stopped in daily to carry some home.

While America was fighting World War II, Cozy Corner did its part to salute patriotism. Mama Lowe smiled on servicemen as if they were her own boys — and she treated them as such. Neither cussing nor bad behavior was tolerated, Lloyd says, and young women were expected to dress accordingly, which meant tastefully. Having just turned 75 in 1979, Mama Lowe explained to a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter her golden-rule philosophy and reason for drawing crowds: "We don't have no rough customers. If they come in, they don't stay long because they feel like they're out of place."

So it was that a tiny, soft-spoken, yet stern Mama Lowe wielded a certain responsibility in running her restaurant. She employed Cozy Corner as a central dispatch for important information — especially about fires. From the early '50s until the city of Richmond annexed the rural Chesterfield County neighborhood in 1970, whenever a blaze broke out nearby, Mama Lowe got the call. She'd then throw a switch that set off the siren at the fire station for Company No. 9 on Blakemore Road. Oftentimes, members of the volunteer fire department were already on hand, perched inside Cozy Corner. One of its neighbors even kept the firetruck in his yard.

Time has a way of blurring some details and magnifying others, Lloyd concedes, as he tries to invoke significant dates and stories that have helped Cozy Corner become an institution all its own. After all, he says, the restaurant boasts one of the oldest "tavern licenses" in Virginia. "It's the last roadhouse," Lloyd figures. And he may be close. With state DUI laws becoming increasingly stringent in recent years, Cozy's reputation as a kind of filling station for folks between work and home has waned, he says. Still, there are exceptions. Patrons say if good-standing customers get in a bind and their limit escapes them, Lloyd will open his RV, insisting he or she stay over and sleep it off.

A sturdy man with silver hair, narrow blue eyes and what appears to be a year-round farmer's tan, Lloyd bought the restaurant from the Lowe family at Easter in 1995. Though 17 years have passed since Mama Lowe died, her spirit endures, he says. Speaking of her prompts a dusting off of memories. Bartender Judi Mayo reaches up and takes down a small, framed photo of Mama and wipes it down.

With the Lowes to live up to, Lloyd deigns to guess what his imprint on Cozy Corner may become. "Sometimes things happen to you," he opines. Lloyd's been on his own since he was 12, he says, and ventured from Halifax County to Richmond, where he worked as an offset printer for 25 years, in that span becoming a Cozy Corner regular. He purchased the restaurant for the same reasons the Lowes did — its wood stove, beer-and-wine license and potential. "It's a full-time job," he muses, so his side job of landscaping has tapered. In his tenure as owner he's refurbished the bar a bit, obtained a liquor license and placed an unabashed emphasis on the food. He takes particular pride in his barbecue — which he smokes out back of the restaurant — and steaks.

While Lloyd doesn't live atop Cozy Corner as Mama Lowe did — karaoke host and musician Mike Thompson and his wife do — he does live next door. The proximity, he says, is a mixed blessing: It's easy to check on things and to open the back door in the mornings for Cozy's older-timers who come in for coffee and conversation before opening time at 11; but it's hard to be around drinkers when you're not drinking.

Lloyd's girlfriend, Maude Simms — whom everyone calls Shug — is a pretty, svelte woman with blond hair, a sophisticated style and the heart to run the bar most nights. On a recent Friday, Shug serves the patrons in Lloyd's stead.

"When I hear music I can't sit still," says Annie Brightwell, 84. Her husband of 50 years has been dead 15, and she has no children. Nevertheless, everybody at Cozy Corner calls her Granny Annie. Seven or eight years ago, she says, she worked up the nerve, despite shaking like a leaf, to sing karaoke. Since then, her voice has fallen an octave or so, forcing her to trade Patsy Cline songs for those of Jim Rice, say, or Hank Williams. "I might not sound good," she says, "but it's a lot of fun."

Brightwell sits at a large table to the left of the dance floor, which is the back of the bar. She nurses the first of two small drafts she says she allows herself on her regular Friday nights out. Despite trying to cut down, she confesses, cigarettes are another matter. Her delicate fingers — nails neatly manicured — pull index cards from her purse. On them, she's written in neat cursive the names and karaoke book numbers of songs she plans to sing. She handles them studiously as if they were flashcards.

"Hi, Granny, how ya' doin', girl?" a woman arriving at the next table asks. "You gonna put in?" Brightwell stops shuffling the cards long enough to smile and answer, "Oh, yes."

The second song on Brightwell's list tonight is one of her favorites, called "Paper Rosie." She explains: "It's about this man who sits at a bar drinking some wine when a lady comes in selling roses. Meanwhile something's going down in Calvin County. After a moment, she leaves and he goes out to look for her. She's lying on the ground with roses around her, and she's died. It's really a pretty song. And I like a song with some meaning to it."

Brightwell says she's seen a few fights break out at Cozy Corner over the years, but none that made her afraid to venture back. The regulars respect her, call on her if she misses a week as she recently did after having laser surgery on her eyes, and they make her feel safe. "I don't mind coming out here by myself," she says. "Sometimes friends are better to you than family."

Lloyd says he's not sure what he'll do when the road project comes to pass. But he's tinkered with ideas. There's a spot in Henrico County, which he declines to cite, that he's convinced would be the perfect location to open a family restaurant — one where he can better showcase his barbecue, ribs and steaks.

But when it comes to the future of the place, Cozy's customers seem to fall into two camps: those who talk about it and those who don't. Regulars such as Brightwell and "Wild Bill" Headley — a Cozy staple who, day or night, always brings his own coffee cup bearing his grandson's picture and a tucked-in dollar bill — speak only of the present or the past. The old-timers (aka the "founding fathers" aka the "roosters' club") who convene daily to solve the world's problems and sip mostly coffee or soda are of another inclination. With nicknames like Bones, Slick, Mr. Nice and Fat Boy, they slip in the back door before opening time for a kind of huddle on life.

Elroy Toppel, who goes by Elroy, is among them. He just turned 89, still drives his Harley with a sidecar and lives across the street. "If they widen the road, the only thing I'd lose is some grass to cut," he says, adding that he was informed of plans to widen German School Road before he bought his house 41 years ago.

Barbara Jensen, 59, who met her husband, Richard "Slick" Jensen, 77, in Cozy Corner nearly 22 years ago, is recuperating from a car accident she had last year. She says the widened road would likely bisect the restaurant's famous stone fireplace where, indoors, a wood stove burns. It's almost always burning. So much so that in the morning hours, before cigarette smoke consumes it, the restaurant smells like burning leaves, like campfire, like comfort.

It's just before noon and Cozy Corner officially has been open for business for about an hour. Steam rises from a buffet station next to the dance floor. Homemade mashed potatoes, green beans, grilled chicken and chili soon will pile upon Styrofoam plates and disappear by the mouthful. The cost: $3.49 for all you can eat, tea or coffee included.

Meanwhile, Jensen's husband, Slick, weighs in. He sports his customary black cowboy hat and brown leather jacket and utters observations in an inimitable warbled voice. "They've got plans for Broad Street, too," he says. "And we'll see when they go through." To this, his wife adds simply: "I'm not going to hold my breath." S



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