For more than 60 years, a ramshackle fruit stand — just bare wooden shelves protected by a striped canvas awning — stood on the northeast corner of Main and Beale, enduring heat and humidity in the summer, sleet and hail in the winter, and rain throughout the seasons. Tony’s Fruit Stand, as the little place was called, became a Memphis institution, where businessmen and -women would pick up apples, bananas, chewing gum, cigarettes, soft drinks, and candy on their way to work. Then one day, all it took was a piece of paper to knock it down.
An Italian truck farmer named Tony Bova opened his little stand in 1905. I’ve seen photos that show it was originally located in Court Square, but then he moved to Beale Street, renting space from the owner of the building behind him. The overhead sign spelled his name “Toney” but since he had it painted for free, so the story goes, he didn’t bother to change it.
Bova died in 1954, and his nephew, Joe Cianciola (that’s him in the photo above), who had begun working at the stand when he was just 11, took over the business. “A lot of people call me Tony,” he once told a reporter, “and that’s all right.”
What wasn’t all right, though, came in 1963, when some nitpicky inspector with the health department sent Joe “Memo 232,” which explained that his little sidewalk stand was considered a restaurant, and therefore needed public restrooms and electric lighting. Cianciola fought the ruling, and eventually Mayor Henry Loeb stepped in and told the health department to keep their hands off. But in 1971, the Memphis Housing Authority unveiled plans for the urban renewal (meaning: almost total destruction of) Beale Street, and Tony’s Fruit Stand had to go.
Cianciola found a new location — this time indoors — at 25 S. Second, but he wasn’t happy there. “I’ll have to sell more than fruit considering what my overhead will be compared to being out there,” he told a Press-Scimitar reporter. Besides, he complained, “I was on that corner practically all my life and never had a cold.” Once he moved inside, he caught a cold.
Cianciola retired in 1987, and though his little fruit stand went through a series of owners, it didn’t last long without him and eventually closed. The original location on Beale Street is now the site of Tri-State Bank. I wonder if anybody saved the old sign?
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES