Cameraman Lou Kleinberg zooms in on Vince Gerasole interviewing Mary Lou Smith, center behind the counter, as she says farewell to customers at the Top of the Tracks after 25 years. One former customer estimated he has bought 8,000 cups of coffee there.RoundTable photo

Except for the cameraman and the news anchor, Oct. 29 was a typical morning at Top of the Tracks: Customers filtered in for coffee, bagels, newspapers and the welcoming smile of Mary Lou Smith, who has operated this coffee shop at the Central Street Metra station for 25 years.  

That Monday morning, however, was one of Ms. Smith’s last. She announced her retirement last month and sold the business to Shelley Patterson, Elizabeth Hubbard and Gail Doeff, who will operate the coffee shop as SEG. Vince Gerasole of CBS Channel 2 News told the RoundTable the station had received many emails and phone calls suggesting they cover this Evanston institution.

Virtually all Ms. Smith’s customers are commuters who spend 5 or 10 minutes in the bright coffee shop. They can buy a bagel, a pastry or a boiled egg (many of them labeled, for the past two weeks, as “Obama” or “Romney”), a paper, and something hot or cold to go, and, since Ms. Smith knows most of her customers after the second or third visit, she is often ready for the order.  She will ask a customer about the family or a recent vacation or note that the day’s order differed from prior ones.  

Business at the Top of the Tracks ebbs and flows with the train schedules. Her husband, Bill, opens the shop at 5 a.m. “We call him the silent partner,” she says. Ms. Smith takes over by 6:30 and closes by 10 a.m.

Some customers come in a few minutes early to sit at one of the tables and read the morning paper. Often there is a conversation among regulars, the pleasant mix of a small-town diner.

“Minutes pass more slowly here,” Mr. Gerasole said.

Keeping a lookout for a bright bobbing light through the north window, Ms. Smith will announce just seconds before a whistle, “Train’s here,” and the exit ballet begins.

As a farewell to her business and her customers, she took photos of regulars for several days. She is collecting stories about her customers’ commutes and adventures once they leave this coffee-shop haven.

Mr. Gerasole, the CBS anchor whose Oct. 29 CBS 2 Morning News show aired from Top of the Tracks, asked Ms. Smith how she felt about leaving her business after so long. “It’s bittersweet,” she said. “I’ll really miss the people. I didn’t realize it would be so much fun.”

After the broadcast a local reporter asked Mr. Gerasole what he thought of Ms. Smith. “She lived up to expectations and even went beyond that,” he said. “You could see how her customers love her. It’s been wonderful to see the people who came in just to say goodbye to her.” Top of the Tracks, he said, is “a little slice of Mayberry in the big city.”

After 10 a.m. on weekdays, Ms. Smith attends to the rest of her life, as mother, grandmother and engaged Evanston resident. She is active in local civic and business activities as a member of the Central Street Business Association, the Woman’s Club of Evanston, the North End Mothers Club, Evanston Library Friends and the City’s Parking and Transportation Committee.

When Mr. Gerasole asked her what she plans to do after retiring, she mentioned a possible trip to Ireland and “digging out the basement.” Asked what Mr. Smith would like to do, she said, “Sleep in.”

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...