RICHMOND -- For 63 years, La Perla Mexican Delicatessen has had a ringside spot for the changes inflicted on downtown Richmond.
The family-owned shop has been selling food from its corner at Fourth Street and Nevin Avenue from the boom time of the postwar years, to the turmoil and urban renewal of the 1960s, to the flight of merchants from the district starting in the 1970s, to today's efforts to rejuvenate downtown.
Now, as painful as it will be, the children of the deli's late founders, Mary and Heliodoro Ponce, are ready to close up shop.
A "for sale" sign went up on the side of the building on July 31.
The shop still has a loyal following -- its Facebook page has about 2,500 "likes" -- but many of the regular customers who grew up with La Perla have moved away and don't make the pilgrimage back as often.
"Wow, I'm 42 and moved to Pittsburg and still go to La Perla," wrote one person on reading about the closing. (Especially) "the ribs and spaghetti back in the days. Really going to miss everybody that works there."
But the biggest factor is that the five siblings who have devoted their lives to serving favorite dishes are in their 60s and 70s.
"I was born and raised in there," said Dolores Bonds, the youngest of the five Ponce siblings at 61. "It's going to be hard. We're all getting old, and it's time to retire."
The original La Perla was a grocery started by Mary and Heliodoro that made and sold tortillas
Before the couple went into business, Mary Ponce had been a "Rosie the Riveter," working at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II. She had also worked at the cannery in Richmond and for Santa Fe, while Heliodoro Ponce had worked at American Standard, another major Richmond factory of the day.
In 1951, the family bought the corner property at Fourth Street and Nevin Avenue and built the present store, with their living quarters above it on the second floor. That was where the children were raised, coming down each day to work in the shop.
"They opened in '51, when I was born," Bonds said. "We would run downstairs, and we all had jobs to do there."
Bonds' brother, Junior Ponce, started working at the shop at age 7 in 1949 and still gets up at 2 a.m. each day to come to La Perla from Rio Vista.
"They were very much community-minded in those years, building clientele," said Bonds' husband, John Spradlin, who manages the shop and starts his work day at 1 a.m.
"It blossomed in the '60s and '70s, during the turbulent years. The 1980s were dysfunctional with the city trying to decide what to do with the central district because they had abandoned downtown. The zoning changed three or four times since the '60s."
La Perla carried on even as many other downtown storefronts were shuttered with the opening of Hilltop mall in 1976.
"When they made Hilltop, that was pretty much it," Spradlin said. "We lost our walk-in traffic. People would drive here."
Loyal customers remain, however, including current City Councilmen Nat Bates and Corky Booze, and former Mayor Irma Anderson.
"We have customers in their 80s and 90s coming in," Spradlin said. "Our oldest customer is 92 -- and ordering fried pork."
La Perla was also buoyed by large orders for corporate events from the Chevron Richmond refinery, Kaiser Richmond Medical Center and the Social Security offices.
The Ponces have remained involved in the community where the family long made its home.
"We've worked with the city, with community groups, worked extensively with the (Richmond Museum of History)," Spradlin said. "We were part of the Iron Triangle picnic. We were one of the architects of the event. We were one of the first to work with the Rosie the Riveter park because (Mary Ponce) was a welder."
A tribute to the shop's standing in the neighborhood is that "we've never been robbed. There's no graffiti on our store," Spradlin said.
Heliodoro died in the upstairs residence in 1988, and his wife made the decision to open for business as usual that day. When Mary Ponce died in 2005, her children put the building up for sale but changed their minds when real estate prices collapsed.
"If we didn't own the building, we probably would have closed 20 years ago," Spradlin said. "What we'll do now is try to give all the brothers and sisters a chance to know what retirement is, because they saw their mom and pop work themselves to death. And that's exactly what they did."
The plan is to close the shop when the building is sold or at the end of the year, whichever comes first.
When that happens, Bonds and Spradlin, both short of retirement age, will be looking for work.
"Everybody is going to miss La Perla," said Bonds, who is also the longtime softball coach at Salesian High School. "We appreciate their business."