Dear Vance:I recently purchased this nice old photograph showing a grocery store called Bruno’s By-Ryt. Where was it located, and who was Bruno? — d.w., memphis.
Dear D.W.: That is indeed a fine photograph, because it depicts one of our city’s rare examples of so-called “googie” architecture, which featured loops and parabolas and ellipses and other space-age design elements. Just look at the crazy arches on what otherwise would be a rather mundane grocery store.
This photograph would look very fine hanging on the wall of the Mansion, so I would be pleased to offer you, say, $12 for it. Okay, $14, but that’s my final offer. I know it’s a lot of money to consider, so think about it and we’ll discuss this later, in private.
It wasn’t too hard to determine that Bruno was the last name of a fellow named George Bruno, since the letters “Geo.” are clearly mounted on the front and sides of the building. I hate to give away my hard-earned secrets of historical detection, but in this case I don’t mind.
Bruno was born in 1908. I don’t know where he grew up, or where he went to school, or much about his upbringing. But I managed to find an old Press-Scimitar article that gave me some details that may interest my half-dozen readers, so I suppose I can share them here. I really have nothing else to do before my usual three-hour lunch.According to the newspaper article, Bruno had been in the grocery business since he was just 16 years old. “He got his start sweeping floors for P.C. Santi at Trigg and Wellington,” said the newspaper. “In 10 years he had worked his way up to meat cutter for the same grocer.” In 1943 Bruno had apparently earned enough money as a butcher that he was able to purchase his own grocery at 1097 Rayner. This was WeOna Store #14, and I should explain that in the early 1900s, several dozen small groceries banded together to form something of a grocery cooperative. Since the families actually owned their stores, and because so many of them — including Bruno — were of Italian descent, they named their chain WeOna (“We own a store”), which sounds like something Chico Marx would say, but I think it’s one of our city’s best business names.
So anyway, he started out at a little WeOna store, and then just a few years later he bought a larger one, at 934 East McLemore. At the time, Bruno and his wife, Mary, were living practically next door, at 1044 East McLemore, which must have been a convenient arrangement.
In the 1950s, Memphis began its rapid expansion eastward, and Bruno followed the trend. First, he moved to a nice home on Highland Park Place. Then, in 1955 he became one of the first merchants — if not the first — to move into the stunning new Park Manor shopping center, at 5043 Park. Now you have to remember that this area of East Memphis wasn’t developed at this time, so this was a rather bold move on his part. Sure, it’s a great location today, but back then he was almost out in the middle of nowhere. If you drove east on Park, you crossed a little intersection at Perkins, and the next road was Colonial. Berean Baptist Church was on your left, and you passed Carlysle Strickland’s gas station. That was it. Mt. Moriah hadn’t reached south as far as Park, and Woolco and the Eastgate Shopping Center were still years away. You finally encountered — it would have been hard to miss, with those swooping arches — Bruno’s By-Ryt, and the next business along Park was Michael’s Esso Station.
It’s almost hard to imagine how lonely this location was in the 1950s, considering how quickly other companies began to move to Park Avenue. Within just a few years, Park Manor was home to Jones Watch Repair, Kay’s Bakery, White Station Pharmacy #2, Frank’s Salon of Beauty, Cavalier Cleaners, Romeo’s Children’s Wear, Sue-Ann’s Clothing, Campbell & Good Hardware, and Ben Franklin Five and Dime.
That was just the first wave. Still to come were such fondly remembered East Memphis establishments as Park Manor Hobby Shop and McLemore Florist. And of course, Bruno’s choice of a location “way out east” was vindicated when the sprawling Eastgate Shopping Center, complete with Woolco and Morrison’s Cafeteria, opened right across the street.
And what about Bruno himself? “Mr. Bruno is not familiar with the customary 40-hour work week,” said a newspaper article. “He puts in six days of work each week, many of those days longer than eight hours. Mrs. Bruno, too, works in the store.” He managed to take some time off. “Occasionally, he slips away from work at the store and then goes home and works with the trees and shrubbery around his home. He follows sports, but he says, ‘The only real hobby I have is the grocery business.’”
In the early 1960s, the store expanded, adding a By-Ryt Snack Bar Restaurant. But by 1965, the city directories show he had retired from the only business he had ever known. A fellow named John Roberson took over the By-Ryt on Park and ran it for a few years, but by the 1970s, it was no longer a grocery; Dowdle Sporting Goods moved into that location. It remained vacant for a few years, but Country Boy Water Beds moved there in 1986, and other businesses in that block included the Art Center, Youth Mart, Super Cuts, Video Place Rentals, and Honey-Baked Hams.
Today, the old By-Ryt is home to Tan-n-Go and an assortment of smaller businesses. And George Bruno? After he left Park Avenue, he continued to dabble in the grocery business, serving as president of the WeOna chain, which at one time included 136 stores in the Memphis area. A Press-Scimitar story noted that he “likes to travel in the family car, and has already seen 43 states.” That wasn’t part of a plan to see the entire country, he said. “It just happened that way.”
Bruno passed away in 1989 at the age of 81. The wonderful architecture that beckoned customers to his grocery store has not only survived, it’s been embellished. In 2001, a local developer revitalized the old Park Manor shopping center with bright colors and eye-catching neon. Now called the Park Cosmorama, it’s still attracting shoppers more than half a century after it first opened. George and Mary Bruno would be pleased, I think.
Dear Vance:I have always been intrigued by the old fountain that stood by First Tennessee Bank at Poplar and Mendenhall, adorned with a grouping of stone lions’ heads, and I’ve been told those sculptures originally came from an old building downtown. True? — t.s., memphis.
Dear T.S.: That fountain was a nice touch, as shown in this photo from a 1974 St. Mary’s yearbook, though the basin was filled in years ago. Fortunately, the lions have survived, still mounted on that wall.
These heads (and a row of others) once adorned one of our city’s most popular buildings. Erected in 1907, the Goodwyn Institute was a gift to this city from William Adolphus Goodwyn, a rather generous fellow — in that regard, much like the Lauderdales — since he left money for Memphis to build an eight-story educational edifice though he lived here only a few years. The Goodwyn Institute was erected downtown at 165 Madison. It was a handsome structure, all red brick and gleaming white terra-cotta, and inside was a 900-seat auditorium, library, meeting rooms, and other public facilities. Throughout the years, the Goodwyn Institute Lecture Series, which featured anything from discussions on art to photographs from somebody’s travel adventures, were marked on everyone’s calendars.
But over time, such entertainment began to lose its appeal. I remember my own lecture, “Bound for Glory: The Elementary School Days of Vance Lauderdale,” attracted less than 20 people. So in the early 1960s, when First Tennessee Bank needed space for a major new downtown headquarters, they purchased the old Goodwyn Institute and pulled it down. The lecture series found a new home at the University of Memphis, four of the columns across the front of the building now support the portico of a home in Central Gardens, and as you’ve noticed, three of the lion heads decorate the brick wall at First Tennessee.
Hmmm, I wonder what happened to the rest of them?
Got a question for Vance?
Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103