Buffeted by changing times, rising food prices and yet another study linking the consumption of red meat to heart disease, Frank's Market in midtown Ventura has closed, for none of those reasons.
"He's at home with his back all shot up with steroids," Leslie Rea told a stream of stunned customers who stopped in Saturday to buy a tri-tip or some lamb chops from Mike Rea, her husband of more than 40 years.
Instead, they found themselves attending an impromptu wake for the business, founded by members of Mike Rea's family nearly 90 years ago and named for his father, Frank, in the 1950s.
"You're not even ordering more? This is it?" asked longtime customer Dan Long as he peered sadly into the meat display case, which by afternoon contained only a few paper-wrapped salamis and several pounds of beef loin sirloin at $9.79 per pound.
"This is it. We're staying open till the meat is gone, which by the looks of it won't be much longer," said Leslie Rea.
Long rocked back on his heels. "I'm a little shocked. I can't quite process this news," he said. "This is what we do on Saturdays: Go to the farmers market, stop by Trufflehound's and the post office and then come here. This is really going to change my life."
"Your life? I haven't bought a cut of meat in 42 years," Leslie Rea shot back with a laugh.
After two back surgeries, a triple bypass in February and 45 years spent standing behind the meat counter, Mike Rea, 60, was at last persuaded by pain and his doctor to quit working, he said Monday during a phone call.
The decision to close the market was made early last week, around the time Mike spent his last day in the shop before leaving for a doctor's appointment that included an MRI, he said.
Notes announcing the market would close "indefinitely" went up soon after.
"But we've gone farther than that now. It's a definite closure, because I can't continue to do what I was doing," he added.
"This is not the way (Mike) wanted to go out. But he's an emotional man, and he would not be able to be here," Leslie said Saturday between tearful hugs from customers. "This way, he was able to leave on a happier note."
On the market's last day, Leslie and brother-in-law Frank Arguelles of Santa Maria worked behind the meat counter while Leslie's sister, Lynn Arguelles, worked the cash register.
"This is a two-man operation at the very least," said Frank Arguelles, who began helping at the store after retiring from his job as an insurance claims examiner in December.
"I don't like to say goodbye, so I'll just say it has been great getting to know you," Lynn told customer Laurie Kearney after ringing up her order of a few steaks and a tri-tip.
"We get all of our meat here. It was a good feeling, supporting a family-owned business," said Kearney, who has been shopping at the market for two decades. "We're going to miss them and the Christmas roast we got from them every year."
When Mike Rea's maternal grandmother opened it in the early 1920s, the store at 3049 E. Main St. was known as the Triangle Park Market. The name was an early reference to the area where Thompson Boulevard, Main Street and Telegraph Road now intersect.
After the market was leased as a restaurant for a brief period, Rea's uncle Bud Klimer reopened it as a butcher shop. He named it Bud's 101 Market, inspired by the fact that Ventura's Main Street then also served as Highway 101.
The shop's name changed to Frank's Market when Rea's father arrived on the scene in the 1950s.
Rea took over the market when his father died in 1982. His mother, Fay Rea, owned the property and kept the books before her death in 2002.
Several aspects of the business remained unchanged from its earliest days to its last.
Mike Rea still offered regular customers the option of maintaining charge accounts that were tracked via colored cards kept in a metal box next to the cash register. And delivery was available for locally owned restaurants.
"We were spoiled for a long time, having the meat delivered to us," said Sally Ramos, owner of Allison's Country Cafe in Ventura.
The restaurant has served sausage from Frank's Market for at least 12 years, Ramos said. And although Rea had enough sent over to keep the kitchen supplied for a while, Ramos and her staff are taste-testing options from new sources for the future.
"Change is the nature of the business, but this is an especially sad change because of the reason behind it," Ramos said. "We wish Mike all the best."
Rea returned the sentiment.
"The No. 1 thing I'm going to miss is seeing all the friends I've made. It didn't matter to me whether someone bought $200 worth of meat a week or spent 10 bucks a month. What mattered was that they kept coming to Frank's."