Busy Bry's



Dear Vance: My grandmother always talked about shopping downtown at a store called Breeze. I can't find any mention of it in local history books. I'll bet you can help. —J.D., Memphis.

Dear J.D.: I won't take that bet, because the Lauderdales do not gamble. We stopped after that rigged card game where we lost my little brother, Vince, to the gypsies. Yes, we called the police, but they said "Go Fish" was legally binding, and little Vince was never going to amount to much anyway, so it probably worked out for the best.

But I can help you — by pointing out that the store name was spelled Bry's, though it was pronounced just as your grandmother said. I presume at one time this Main Street establishment was owned by a family named Bry, though I never met them, and — being common merchants — they were never a part of the Lauderdale social set.

But Bry's was a Memphis landmark for more than half a century, one of the "Big Four" downtown department stores, the others being Goldsmith's, Gerber's, and Lowenstein's. The store opened in 1908 in the old Appeal Building at Main and Jefferson, so-named because it had originally housed the offices of the Appeal newspaper. In 1925, it moved down the street to the stunning edifice shown above, topped with one of the finest neon signs in town.

And what a store it was! Roaming through the Lauderdale Library, I came across a 1932 issue of The Commercial Appeal which proclaimed that November 1st was "Memphis Day" — an event no longer marked on national calendars, I'm sorry to say — but one described as "the South's largest sales event."

Memphis Day was a shopper's nirvana. The Bry's ad described more than 200 items on sale, with prices ranging from 17-cent "men's Swiss-ribbed cotton knit shirts" to the most expensive thing in the store, a "handsome bedroom suite, complete with massive four-poster bed, triple vanity, and deck chest." The cost for that? $44.95.

The sheer quantities were overwhelming. A "complete showing of all that's new in smart footwear" included 800 pairs — yes, 800 — of women's "Klever-Mode fall shoes" for just $3.60. Scanning the sale items until my eyes ached, I noticed the copywriters of the day were determined to point out the innate intelligence of the merchandise. Just about everything was "smart," from "smartly made pajamas" (66 cents) to "women's smart new undies" ($1.59). If it wasn't smart, it was clever in other ways: "cunning chinchilla coat sets" ($7.98) and "cunning medium-size baby dolls" ($1.59).

Frankly, I would never want a doll that was cunning. That just seems like something out of The Twilight Zone.

But boy this store had just about everything you could possibly want: "famous Southern Flyer bicycles" (kind of pricy, if you ask me, at $27.88), genuine cowhide footballs (59 cents), and "well-constructed single-barrel guns" ($5.88).

And if you can believe historian Paul Coppock (and I usually do), Bry's even sold airplanes. In one of his old newspaper columns, he observed that the store "announced widely and repeatedly that it sold everything. That included airplanes for a while." And in fact, old city maps show a single-runway "Bry's Airport" located on the west side of Warford, just north of Jackson. Coppock says that "it opened without a dollar of Bry's money. The aviation unit was financed and operated by H.T. Dawkins, who operated under lease the Bry's department that sold automobile supplies and tires. He incorporated the Tri-State Aviation Corporation, which was the dealer for Stinson, Travelair, and Eagle Rock planes."

Bry's was quite a place, so — this being Memphis and all — it was destined to close. In 1964, Lowenstein's moved into that location, until they too went out of business. The entire block today bears no resemblance to the old photograph. I wonder what happened to the wonderful sign?

A Place Called Bergville

Dear Vance: Looking through old photos in the Memphis Room, I came across one for a tiny restaurant called Bergville. Where was this place? — L.A., Memphis.

Dear L.A.: To solve this puzzle, I traipsed over to the main library where, as usual, the security guards hassled me about my sword cane, and after rooting through the photo files, finally found the image you mentioned (above).

It is (or was) quite a handsome little establishment, and even the signs painted on both windows proclaimed "A Clean Place to Eat." But I was perplexed by what I could see in the background — rows of storage tanks of some sort. If not for the "Poland Photo Memphis" logo at the bottom, I wouldn't have guessed this was a local establishment.

But it certainly was located here, a tiny restaurant opened in 1932 at 459 Union Avenue. The proprietor was Alex Guigou, who with his wife, Helen, had previously operated the Orange Palace Café on Summer. Those tanks in the background belonged to the Beacon Light filling station next door, and in fact that part of Union in those days was fairly industrial. Along that same block you could find McCreery Used Cars, Automobile Piston Company, Charles Ham Auto Service, and Farber Brothers Auto Tops. Just a few doors down was the old building — originally the Ford Motor Company factory — that housed The Commercial Appeal.

I have no idea why this little eatery was called Bergville. It didn't last long. Old city directories show a different manager running the joint every year until 1936, when the owners renamed it the Spick & Span Restaurant. In the 1940s, it became the Blue and White Spot Restaurant. In the 1950s and 1960s, the tiny building became a used-car dealership, joining many others in that area. But all that is changed now, and the little place known as Bergville is gone.

Looking For Tina

Dear Vance: I drive by this abandoned business on McLean every day (above) and always wonder: Who was Tina? — H.G., Memphis.

Dear H.G.: Just when I think I must be the nosiest person in all of Memphis, I get a letter like this and realize there are others who would compete for that title. So I feel better now.

Looking at the faded sign, you'd think this was an old establishment. So I began by looking through city directories from the 1950s, then the 1940s, then the 1930s. No mention of Tina. What I did find was that this row of rather neglected storefronts on North McLean was erected in 1922, and originally housed the Eason Pharmacy, Mr. Bowers Store #45, and the Snowden Coffee Shop. In 1935, the Elite Beauty Service opened in Tina's space (the middle bay), and remained in business until 1969, when new owners changed the name to the McLean Beauty Shop.

But where did Tina fit into all this? That was the mystery. Finally, in 1989, Tina's South-western Hair Care opened at 573 North McLean, and the owner was Tina Downing. So there's your Tina, H.G.

She didn't stay in business here long. The place closed around 1993, I believe, and this building and the one next door (formerly a piano repair shop) have been vacant ever since. They are currently for lease; someone should buy them, restore them, and rid the Vollintine-Evergreen Historic District of such an eyesore. I'd do it myself, but I have to replace the sword cane snatched away by the librarians. M

Got a question for Vance? Send it to "Ask Vance" at memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103 or email him at askvance@memphismagazine.com

 

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