Orphaned by war in his native Greece, Harry Panos was 11 years old when he boarded a ship for Ellis Island in 1951.
Sixty-six years later, he’s mourning the closing of the business that made him a success in Charlotte.
Pass Time Billiards on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood is being forced to close because of his adopted city’s booming growth.
Some of America’s top players have chalked up their pool and snooker cues in the 3,000-square-foot hall, where vintage beer and sports posters and signs, along with autographed photos of famous Charlotte boxers, grace the walls. “Legends of One Pocket Philadelphia Style” reads a poster with photos of each legend, all of whom played at his hall, Panos said.
Panos has owned the business for 32 years in a building so plain, and his green outdoor sign so tiny, that a first-time visitor might drive right past if not for GPS.
It’s almost hard to believe, Panos said, that Friday will be the venerable hangout’s last day. An auction of his pool tables, snooker table, pool table light, beer signs and sports memorabilia is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
Panos, 77, figured the day might come when Charlotte’s growth would overtake the building. Still, he said, he was stunned to receive an eviction notice over the July 4 holiday giving him until the end of the month to move out.
Townhouses will rise on the half-acre site, which was acquired for $765,000 in a deal that closed June 27. New owner TDC Chatham LLC is affiliated with townhouse developer Bobby Drakeford, Novant executive Jesse Cureton and Bank of America executive Brett Carter. Charlotte City Council recently approved a rezoning request to allow up to 12 townhouses at Chatham and Central Avenue, where the building sits.
The building also houses a decades-old medical supply and home health care service whose owner was packing up this week, and All African Braids & Weaving Center, which has already moved out.
“It’s sad, it’s very sad to see they’re tearing up this building,” Panos said after putting a key in the padlock on his front door to open for business as usual at 1 p.m. Wednesday.
“Condos, condos,” Panos said. “But I can understand that. It’s all about the money. I’m sad, but glad, because I was not making any money.”
Money from his pocket kept the doors open for several years, he said. Business dropped as many longtime customers died, but a steady stream of mostly male patrons continued to frequent the hall each afternoon. Many enjoyed just saddling up to the bar for a beer. He never sold liquor, Panos said.
The irony of being replaced by townhouses, he said, is that they could bring him more customers. “It’s hard to find a place,” he said of finding another site to reopen. “They want an arm and a leg.”
Now, he said, “the plan is to go fishing.”
Panos and his wife, Katherine, a retired school teacher, have always enjoyed breaks at Surfside Beach, S.C., where Panos fishes for spot, whiting and flounder.
Katherine Panos said the couple might also visit her husband’s family in Greece, which her husband said was devastated by war when he boarded that boat.
The trip over was treacherous, he recalled, and the boat nearly capsized. He rejoiced when he saw the Statue of Liberty, but freedom was only his second thought. “Land!” he remembers thinking, glad he hadn’t drowned.
“It’s the best country there’s ever been;” he said of the United States. “People think they have it rough here? They ought to go over there. This is the greatest country.”
Except for a stint as a waiter at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park, Panos has always called Charlotte home and pool halls his business. He previously owned Plaza Pool Room on Thomas Avenue between Central and Commonwealth, “until the city bought the site to make it a parking lot.”
After battling throat cancer several years ago, Panos reduced his pool hall hours to 1-6 p.m. weekdays, closing earlier if no patrons entered late afternoon. He never smoked, he said, and is convinced second-hand smoke from customers’ cigars and cigarettes caused his cancer.
He will miss his many longtime loyal patrons, who’ve filed in for one final beer and round of snooker and pool this week.
“Everybody’s so friendly,” longtime patron Douglas Bartlett said before recounting tales of famous players and infamous hustlers he’s seen visit the hall. “Never had any gun battles, knife cuttings. It’s never been robbed. You feel relaxed when you come in the door.”
Panos choked up as he talked about his hall. He said he will keep two mementos: His decades-old pool cue and a reddish orange neon sign on a wall behind the snooker table. A former Plaza Midwood sign shop owner made the sign.
“Harry’s,” it glows.
Staff writer Ely Portillo and researcher Maria David contributed.