One of the places I’ve missed most was my local grocery-store beer den. When its popular bartender died, it was only right to mourn him there—with half-price pints and memories.

Mark’s death brought us shopper-drinkers back together to down growlers and ponder grief in a place both familiar and risky. 

Pictured above: Bartender Mark Terry (left) and manager Jordan DuBois often hammed it up at the beer den.

Jordan DuBois jokes that Mark Terry planned his death, waiting until North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper lifted the mask mandate. That way, he could be celebrated at a Lowes Foods in Winston-Salem, North Carolina—and not just on any aisle of the store, but the popular beer den where Mark poured brews and held court during his not-quite-retirement. 

The joke might seem irreverent, said DuBois, the manager of the beer den. But it would have made Mark laugh like hell. 

So last month, me, my fiancé Ben, and dozens of other people showed up to toast Mark, the bespectacled, 6’5’’ bear of a man who brought us all together in a strange grocery-store beer den. I cannot fully articulate the stupid little thrill of having a pint at the grocery store before buzzing around and picking up a few things for dinner. It’s a weird and wholesome pastime, one many of us came to love—and, at the Robinhood Road location, an unlikely little community sprouted up at the beer den, largely cultivated by Mark. 

Mark stands in front of 19 Crimes wine at the Beer Den. NC

Mark Terry stands behind a display of 19 Crimes wine at the beer den, inside Lowes Foods in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Courtesy of Nikki Terry

Going to his “celebration of life” at the beer den felt both surreal and familiar. We milled about somewhat awkwardly, drinking half-price craft beers and entering a raffle to raise money for the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation (Mark adored children and NASCAR). Some became emotional while hugging Mark’s longtime partner, Lillian Kroustalis, and his daughters, Nikki Terry and Tracy Martinez, who listened tearfully as customers passed a microphone to share stories about Mark. 

For many of us, it was our first public event since the beginning of the pandemic. Mingling with strangers, many of whom were unmasked, provoked some anxiety. But after spending more than a year grieving in our homes alone, there was some comfort to be found in numbers. As it turned out, the grocery-store beer den was the perfect place to memorialize our favorite bartender, who died of a heart attack while tending wine grapes at a vineyard in Lexington where he was a consultant.

Higher-end grocery stores have been serving alcohol since at least 2013, opening wine bars and beer gardens to lure customers to linger longer. I’ve become a devotee, but only to Lowes Foods beer dens where I live in Winston-Salem. My fiancé and I tried a few other locations when we moved to the city in 2016. We were actually the first people to drink at a location on one of the city’s main drags. Somewhere there exists a photo of us taken by the bartender, who wanted to memorialize the den’s first customers. In the photo, we were sweaty and tan, having just completed a long hike on a hot summer day. We smiled uncomfortably for the camera, our plastic cups of beer in hand. We had not yet found our place. 

“He knew every customer by name. It was like ‘Cheers.’ He knew who they were, and he knew what they wanted to drink. People loved to see him at Lowes, and they’ve told me that they have to laugh at themselves for loving to drink at a grocery store.”

Most Lowes beer dens are nothing more than a few seats around a small bar. But the location where Mark worked had an unusual selling point: an expansive seating section located in a  bizarre, red corrugated tin “barn,” a fixture that eats up a significant portion of the beer and wine section. Even more enticing, the smell of fried chicken wafts in from the deli a few feet away (I’ve watched more than a few parents, exhausted after a long work day, drink their dinner as their children chomp away on chicken tenders and mashed potatoes). 

Mark, who was previously a winemaker, was the perfect bartender. He was chatty, but not overbearing. Funny, but not crude. He paid attention to what you ordered so that when he got to know you, his recommendations always hit the spot. But he also had an emotional intelligence that he brought to the beer den, one that his daughter Nikki said overlapped with his parenting style. He was intuitive, anticipated your needs, and listened intently.  

“He knew every customer by name. It was like ‘Cheers,’” said Nikki, who for a short time owned a popular downtown bar with Mark called Corks, Caps & Taps. “He knew who they were, and he knew what they wanted to drink. People loved to see him at Lowes, and they’ve told me that they have to laugh at themselves for loving to drink at a grocery store.” 

A view of the Beer den at a Lowes Foods in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The Robinhood Road location’s beer den—with its kitschy faux barn—became a place for gathering during a trip to the grocery store.

Courtesy of Nikki Terry

At 61, Mark was technically retired, but Nikki said he enjoyed being around people so much that he worked at the beer den for the fun of it. Mark would talk to customers about winemaking or patiently explain the differences between beers. He somehow turned an admittedly kitschy grocery-store beer den into a place people loved to go. 

DuBois said the appeal of the grocery-store beer den is that it isn’t a dive bar. It doesn’t have bathrooms with sticky floors, and there are no creeps hanging around “hitting on people inappropriately.” 

“If you’ve not been, it’s hard to explain. It’s just really low-key and nice, and all kinds of people feel comfortable stopping by—people bring their kids, they have a beer with their parents, they have a beer after work with their co-workers,” Jordan said. “It’s become a gathering place for people, and Mark was a big part of that.” 

We all looked forward to Thirsty Thursday when the work week was almost over. Pints were half off, and Mark was there to crack jokes and pour you a beer. 

I went to the beer den in search of solace—and there was Mark. He told me to get the local raspberry cider, so I did. He told me to get some of the sandwiches they offered that day for happy hour, so I did.

I still remember being relatively new to Winston-Salem and having an absolutely disastrous work day. I went to the beer den in search of solace—and there was Mark. He told me to get the local raspberry cider, so I did. He told me to get some of the sandwiches they offered that day for happy hour, so I did. 

Later when he made his usual rounds as the beer den filled up, he found me sitting at a table happy as a lark. He patted me on the shoulder and told me to take care of myself. I almost cried into my free roast beef sandwich. It was a small gesture—and I later learned everyone has a story like this about Mark—but as a transplant from Los Angeles, I felt especially cared for in my new community. 

Covid-19 decimated all of this. I don’t know how to quantify everything that we lost in 2020. When I try to make sense of it, I think of an invisible countdown clock hovering above each of our heads. When the clock will stop, none of us knows. But we have all lost more than a year. Some of us won’t get the chance to make that time up. 

I am emerging from “quarantine” mostly unscathed. I didn’t lose family members or friends to Covid. I didn’t lose my job or my home, like millions of Americans. Mostly, my mental health took a beating, I missed my friends and family, and I lost routines that I loved—like Thirsty Thursday at Lowes. Now I finally can go back to the bar I missed most during the pandemic. But, with Mark gone, I’ve lost the place I wanted to return to.

Mark was a father, a partner, a friend—and the favorite bartender of dozens of other people who also weirdly found themselves preferring a grocery-store beer den over any number of Winston-Salem’s bars and breweries.

The last time I saw Mark was in May. I’d just returned from visiting my family in California for the first time in more than a year, and I came back to a newly-reopened state, free of pandemic restrictions. One of the first things I wanted to do was revisit my beloved beer den and see Mark, maybe make a dark joke about surviving the plague. 

But when I got to the beer den that evening, Mark was leaving. I watched him walk toward a checkout stand in his familiar gait, side-by-side with his partner, Lillian. “I’ll catch him next time,” I thought. 

A few days later, I went to Lowes and saw a sign for a beer-den memorial in honor of an employee who passed away. Some panicked Googling led to a local newspaper article about Mark’s passing. Nikki said it gives her peace knowing that her father died in a vineyard doing what he loved. 

But I also sense that for Nikki and others who loved Mark, there is a lot of pain, hurt, and maybe even some anger. Mark spent most of 2020 afraid of getting Covid, Nikki said. The pandemic derailed his travel plans and pushed him to reduce his beer den hours. He was vaccinated in April and died in May—right around the time restrictions in the state were lifted. It’s been a cruel year. 

A memorial table for Mark Terry in Lowes Foods in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. June 2021

A memorial table for Mark Terry in the Lowes Foods where he worked, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Courtesy of Nikki Terry

So many community members showed up to Mark’s celebration of life last month at the beer den to honor him and sip his favorite beers, Wicked Weed’s Pernicious IPA and Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale. There were people there I’d never seen before; some of them shared stories about Mark. It reminded me of a moment in young adulthood when I realized that my dad was a person and not just a parent defined by the parameters of his relationship to me. Mark was a father, a partner, a friend—and the favorite bartender of dozens of other people who also weirdly found themselves preferring a grocery-store beer den over any number of Winston-Salem’s bars and breweries. 

Thanks to the pandemic, grocery stores became such loaded places. There were days when shopping felt like being thrown into a ring to battle it out with anti-maskers for toilet paper and chicken. I used to love planning elaborate meals, making intricate grocery lists, and perusing the aisles. But then it all became so exhausting, so I rushed in and out of the store as quickly as possible. Other days, I used apps to order groceries for my dad from across the country, refreshing the page over and over again in hopes of getting him a time slot that wasn’t a week away. 

Early on in the pandemic, when grocery stores were feared as sites of contagion, I sometimes walked by the beer den just to see if Mark was there. Just to remember what it was like to have a beer at my favorite grocery store and talk to my favorite bartender without worrying about a deadly virus. 

DuBois told me it felt natural to celebrate Mark at the beer den because people wanted to drink in his name, and they wanted to shake off the last year. 

“I think this past year showed us how meaningful the grocery store is,” Jordan said. “It’s kind of the heart and the soul of a community, and people like Mark are at the center of it.”

I thought about this recently when I suggested to my partner that we go to Thirsty Thursday. 

“What’s the point?” he said. “Mark won’t be there.” 

Tina Vasquez is a senior staff writer at The Counter focusing on immigration, gender, and food systems. She was previously a senior reporter at Prism, a women of color-led non-profit news outlet. A 2020 Type Investigations Ida B. Wells Fellow, she has written for The Nation, NPR, Playboy, and the Boston Globe. She is based in North Carolina.