The Neighborhood Corner Store

“The corner store has a mythic place in our view of American cities. Mythic because, in most cities, they exist only in our minds.”

So says the Strong Towns blog.

When we think of the gold standard for the grocery store in the Mid-South, we of course think first of the chain of Piggly-Wiggly stores founded in 1916 by Clarence Saunders. However, throughout the 1920s and through the ’60s, little and lesser-known neighborhood grocery stores could be found everywhere before the big chains took over the landscape.

Memphis Magazine’s Ask Vance recalls that “You have to realize that years ago, before national chains took over the grocery industry here, it was commonplace to have small, family-owned and operated groceries, markets, and other stores scattered along the residential streets of this city. There was a very practical reason for that: In the first half of the 1900s, we employed a very novel means of transportation when we decided to go shopping: We walked. And so merchants opened stores in their own neighborhoods, and that’s where they drew their customers.”

A few neighborhood stores still exist here in the Mid-South, including High Point Grocery in High Point Terrace. But now these little gems are rare; today’s economics just don’t make them sustainable.

In Midtown Memphis, quite a few family-owned or small-chain “cooperative” stores dotted the map for generations. Among others, midtowners could count on grocers in their neighborhood that included Leadway Food Stores and WeOna grocers, as well as smaller, neighborhood Piggly Wiggly stores.

Though Piggly Wiggly would eventually dominate the grocery store landscape, the chain started small. There were local stores in midtown at 622 S. Bellevue; at 2129 Central Ave on the corner at Cooper St, home for years of the former Toad Hall Antiques store; and at 237 Barksdale St, south of Union Ave near Linden.

Leadway was a cooperative of small, “Locally Owned” stores. The telephone book advertised Leadway as “Dedicated to service to customers. Fine foods at low prices.” In the 1940s midtowners could walk to Charlie Adams Grocery & Market at 2127 Madison, where Overton Square is now; to Hellum Brothers at 938 S. Cooper; to Short’s Grocery & Market at 637 S. Bellevue; and to Leadway #32 at 663 S. Rembert.

WeOna stores, as Ask Vance says, “was a citywide chain of individually owned and operated groceries — hence the name: ‘We Own a Store.'” WeOna stores could also be found all over midtown. At various times neighborhoods could find local WeOna at 243 Barsdale St. (two doors down from a Piggly Wiggly); at 641-43 S. Cooper, operated as the L.J. Vescovo grocery, which is now home to Otherlands Coffee Bar; WeOna #73 at 2029 Peabody at Diana, a brick building renovated in the early ’60s that now houses offices; WeOna #16, B.E. Turner’s Grocery at 2129 Young Ave, where Cafe Ole is now; and WeOna #16 at 1605 Monroe, owned for over 60 years by the same family, the Mangiante’s.

Enjoy these little blasts from the past.

Leadway Food Store, at 663 South Rembert Street

A residence for generations, this former neighborhood store in Central Gardens from 1927-29 housed the “Handy-Andy Store,” and from 1930-41 was owned and operated by a T. Benton Chalmer.

In later years it became part of the chain of Leadway Food Stores. Devin Greaney, local writer and historian added that “Stepherson’s owned it. Later they became Big Star and now (we know it as) Superlo.” This was listed as Leadway Food Store #32.

Watercolor by C. Stepherson, as seen hanging in the Superlo Foods grocery in the Audubon Place shopping center in East Memphis.
The former store on S. Rembert, today. View south between Cowden and Higbee.

Reader Ruthie McAfee Cassin told us that “In my childhood, It was DiBandi’s Grocery. (60s). My dear friend and her late husband bought it and turned it into a home many years ago. She still lives there!”

The WeOna Stores

A WeOna store, at 641 S Cooper, with a drapery and cornice shop, 1962. Otherlands Coffee Bar occupies this building today. (Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.)
Lenow’s WeOna Store #73, 2029 Peabody at Diana, view west. Date unknown. Photo courtesy Ask Vance and Memphis Magazine
Same view today. Google image
WeOna Store at 243 Barksdale, two doors down from a Piggly Wiggly. 1934-35 photo, view north toward Union Ave. Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
Cooper at Young Ave looking south, with a corner store and barber shop on the left and WeOna Food Store #11 on the right. 1945. Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
1605 Monroe, home of Mangiante’s Grocery from 1918 to 1941, and the Mangiante’s WeOna store #16 from 1941 to 1981. Google image and The Commercial Appeal
A vacant 1605 Monroe today. Google image

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About Mark Fleischer 42 Articles
I was a career consultant and communications specialist in the payroll industry until moving from southern California to Memphis in late 2015. The Bluff City gave me a new start in the second half of my career, gifting me with a chance to return to my childhood fascinations with cities and my college passions in writing, theater, film, and storytelling, all the while allowing me to use my experience working with people, in consulting, teaching and communications, to bring a new voice to Memphis. This may be my first venture into multi-media publishing, but Life and Place - Memphis - gave me all the prep and tools I need.

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