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Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018 12:01 am

PETER LAZARE

“Have a pretty good day”

PETER LAZARE April 16, 1952-Nov. 7, 2018
“Have a pretty good day”

Pete Lazare, almost always, was the smartest man in the room. He never made that clear.

He spoke French. He read, a lot. His energy was boundless. He was a master of bad poetry and Springfield’s king of puns. As a businessman, he did lots of things considered either wrong or weird, which made him a success.

Whether you ever stopped for a cup, you knew Lazare without knowing it, just by traveling past Grab-A-Java on South Sixth Street. Inspired by similar places in Seattle, the drive-through coffee joint that opened in 1996 was among the first, if not the first, place in the capital city to buy a latte or just plain cup of joe that stood out from Folgers. But we were slow to catch on. And so, with hopes of drawing customers, Lazare became an artist.

The signs that became Grab-A-Java’s hallmark were created on the cheap from clearance-sale paint applied to fabric dropcloths purchased at Lowe’s. They were funny, sometimes shocking, always eye-grabbing, usually topical. “Finger-Lincoln Good,” read one that portrayed Abe holding a cup of coffee and a muffin, just the thing to draw tourists to the then newly opened Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Donald Trump was a favorite target.

When Trump got elected, Lazare reacted with a sign that included two arrows, one pointing north with the inscription “Canada,” the other pointing toward his store: “Coffee.” “Stormy Spills The Beans!” he once wisecracked, with a depiction of the porn star pouring coffee beans over the president’s head. There also was the portrait of the president drinking a beverage with a straw accompanied by two words: I suck.

Meg Evans Lazare, Lazare’s wife who was the official owner of Grab-A-Java, including a west side outlet, worried about offending people and occasionally was horrified. Complaints came with the territory, as when Lazare painted Queen Elizabeth saying, “Shag me some coffee, baby.”

“People came through saying ‘Shag is inappropriate, disrespectful to the queen,’” recalls Ben Lazare, Pete’s son. “It wasn’t the only time. My mom would just be off in some corner of the house: ‘You’ll never believe what your father wants to put on the sign.’ It would take awhile for everyone to calm down, and eventually the sign would go up.”

But not always.

“But sometimes I obey what Meg says to do,” Lazare declared in a poem he recited during a 2016 art show. “That’s why no sign asks, ‘What would Jesus brew?’”

Lazare was more than a coffee salesman and sign maker.

Raised in Connecticut, Lazare started college at the University of Pennsylvania, then transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, not a typical choice for an Ivy League student who was studying economics. “It devastated my grandma,” Ben Lazare says. Compounding matters, he took a job in a Chicago garment factory after graduation, sewing pants and trying to unionize workers. He sewed for nearly a decade before looking for a job that would pay enough to raise a family. “He applied to a lot of places,” Ben Lazare says. “Everyone was asking him, ‘What have you been doing for the last 10 years?’ It wasn’t very easy to explain.”

The Illinois Commerce Commission made an offer, and so Lazare landed in Springfield, where he became an analyst who evaluated requests for rate increases, giving testimony on complex issues in language only a lawyer or economist could love or even understand. “He was very much on the side of the consumer and the side of the environment,” Ben Lazare says.

Passionate about climate change, Lazare, after retiring from the state, argued against a 2015 City Water, Light and Power rate overhaul that lowered per-kilowatt prices on the grounds that cheap rates discourage conservation. He commuted to work by bicycle no matter the weather, even after he was hit by cars. Three times.

“We’d say, ‘Peter, go to the hospital,’” recalls Lynsey Dunham, a Grab-A-Java manager who’s worked there nearly nine years. “He’d say, ‘No, I’m fine.’ It wouldn’t matter if there was four feet of snow, he would be riding his bike – he’d have snot-sicles coming out his nose. If I had a dollar for every time I said ‘How is he still alive?’ With all the crazy things he did and thought, how is he still alive?”

Lazare wore out a hip before he reached 50, but hip replacement didn’t slow him down. He’d arrive at Grab-A-Java at 7 a.m. each morning, leave at 8:20 a.m. and be at his commerce commission desk 10 minutes later. His daughter, Sarah Lazare, recalls him as a walker of consequence who could go for hours and wear out companions. He had relatives in France and enjoyed Europe. He denied being bilingual. “My mom would say, ‘He speaks perfect French,’ and he would say, ‘No, I don’t,’” Ben Lazare recalls. “But, apparently, he absolutely did.”

Lazare was a wizard at Microsoft Excel and a tinkerer who could figure stuff out, from fixing espresso machines to engineering the frame for his signs. He wasn’t a coffee devotee per se, his son recalls. “He just wanted to do something so badly,” Ben Lazare says. “Coffee wasn’t necessarily his dream. He wanted to do something creative that he could make money at.”

His sense of humor was dry. “Have a pretty good day,” Lazare would tell customers as he handed out orders. He was hard-nosed when it came to supplies and vendors, negotiating the best price down to the penny, recalls William Legge, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Central Illinois, who acquired Grab-A-Java in a deal that closed Oct. 1. As a boss, Lazare paid more than minimum wage and provided generous benefits, covering the full cost of health insurance for his workers and loaning them money if they needed it. At tax time, employees would go to his house so he could help with returns, everyone sitting on the floor with tax forms and laptops. If someone wanted a bicycle, Lazare would comb Craigslist and forward ads, Dunham says, and when a thief stole an employee’s bike from outside the store, Lazare replaced it.

A year before making the deal to sell Grab-A-Java, Lazare and his wife told Dunham and other managers they were ready to move on and wanted to give the business to them. When that didn’t work out, Dunham says, the couple told managers early on that they had found a prospective buyer. “They let us in on everything – they didn’t hide anything from the managers,” Dunham says.

Lazare made the deal last July with Legge, who’d been a customer for years. Financing was pending when Lazare fell ill in August. He had pancreatic cancer. Three hundred chairs set out for a memorial service at the Inn at 835 proved insufficient.

“I think Springfield has just never seen someone like him before,” Ben Lazare says. “He didn’t mold to the town. But the town began to mold to him.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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