Indianapolis Then and Now: Bova Conti Grocery, 960 S. East Street

Written by on March 7, 2013 in Then & Now - 22 Comments
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Hundreds of mom-and-pop-owned stores once dotted the neighborhoods of Indianapolis and urban planners increasingly question if that was such a bad thing. Before zoning laws restricted businesses in residential neighborhoods, small stores such as groceries, hardware stores, shoe repair shops, and restaurants were sprinkled among houses and their proprietors often lived in quarters behind or attached to the the shop. One such store was the J. Bova Conti Grocery, which served Indianapolis’s small Italian community on the near south side from the 1920s through the 1950s.

J. Bova Conti Italian Foods, Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Italian American Collection

J. Bova Conti Italian Foods, Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Italian American Collection

Italian immigrants John Bova Conti and his wife Josie operated the J. Bova Conti Grocery at 960 S. East Street. According to Indianapolis Italians by James J. Divita (Arcadia Publishing, 2006), Josephine Mascari and her son Tommaso were having hardships with their grocery on Virginia Avenue and the well-educated and popular John Bova Conti (1877-1937) moved in to run the store and ended up marrying the widow. It was not until the 1920s that they rented this small, wood-frame grocery with an adjacent residence. Signs on the store  and visible goods include Wonder and Yum Yum bread, fruit, macaroni, olives, cheese, Coca-Cola, and East End Dairy products. The store’s business ledger for 1924 through 1927 (housed at the Indiana Historical Society) indicates that many products were imported from Italy and distributed to other stores around the state. According to Divita “After visiting relatives in Indianapolis, customers from smaller towns would stop at Bova Conti’s to buy 20 pounds of dry pasta for the month. Among his attractive prices were one gallon Berio olive oil, $3; one bottle, Florio Marsala, $2.25; five pounds, Sicilian caciocavallo, $3.75; and one case Brioschi, 75 cents.” By the time these photographs were taken in April 1946, the store’s namesake had been deceased for several years. Gus Mascari recalls that his grandparents Tom and Marie Mascari operated the grocery from the late 1930s through the late 1950s. Another Mascari grandchild, Mrs. Terry Shannon, shares that the store had sawdust on the floor and pickles in large barrels. They sold Italian bread baked by Mrs. Mascari.

Looking north at the 900 block of S. East Street, April 1946. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Italian American Collection.

Looking north at the 900 block of S. East Street, April 1946. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Italian American Collection.

Looking north in the 900 block of S. East Street, Google Street View, 2011

Looking north at the 900 block of S. East Street in 2011, Google Street View

The era of locally-owned corner grocery stores slowly disappeared by the mid 1900s as national chains such as Kroger and A&P dominated and large supermarkets sprang up in the suburbs. The old Bova Conti grocery store building was demolished between 1962 and 1972 to make way for landscaping and parking for Eli Lilly and Company. Some of the flavor of the old neighborhood is visible across the street, where The Bosphorus Turkish restaurant occupies a converted old house adjacent to the Hookah House in an old corner commercial building.

As I visit other cities I seek out funky old areas with mixed-use neighborhoods. Lately we’ve come to appreciate what worked well in the past. Popular concepts among urban planners and folks who care about improving Indianapolis and other cities include walkable neighborhoods that are close to shops and other amenities, relaxed parking requirements (especially as public transportation improves), and live-work or home-based businesses (which is how Conti lived for decades). Here’s hoping that a new model evolves that encourages the return of the corner store.

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About the Author

Joan Hostetler and John Harris own Heritage Photo & Research Services. The company specializes in house and building research and historic photograph preservation, interpretation, archiving, and digitization. Since they see so many cool photographs tucked away in attics and basements, they recently created "The Indiana Album" to borrow, scan, and share hidden Indiana images with the public. Like them on facebook or send them an email to share your photographs.

22 Comments on "Indianapolis Then and Now: Bova Conti Grocery, 960 S. East Street"

  1. Shari Moon March 7, 2013 at 6:38 am · Reply

    Very interesting article! I am curious if the Bovaconti Jewelers in Fountain Square are possibly descendants of the grocer John Bova Conti.

  2. basil berchekas jr March 7, 2013 at 7:09 am · Reply

    Mixed use developments are definitely superior to the bland “suburban” landscape, as Jane Jacobs so profoundly stated in the early 1960s…

  3. Molly Head March 7, 2013 at 9:19 am · Reply

    Corner stores had more to do with the lack of automobiles. Yes, America used to be dotted with neighborhood stores that one could walk to, or take the streetcar to. Mom didn’t have a car. And possibly, neither did Dad.

    • Joan Hostetler March 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm · Reply

      You’re right, the lack of transportation had a lot to do with the success of these neighborhood shops. When trolleys and cars could take shoppers to larger chain stores with more variety, these stores soon closed. The corner store survived a little longer in marginalized neighborhoods. Paul Mullins, head of IUPUI’s anthropology department, wrote an insightful article about the archaeology of corner stores and focuses on an African-American owned store in the 800 block of Camp Street in Ransom Place Neighborhood. http://www.iupui.edu/~anthpm/SHAurbangalleyfinal2008.pdf

      • Molly Head March 7, 2013 at 12:40 pm · Reply

        The modern “convenience store” or “gas station plus really expensive groceries and cigarettes” type- places continue to be available in really poor neighborhoods. Black, white, Hispanic; you’ll find them! I know I’m getting a little off topic here, but money and transportation choices certainly affect this type of retail development, historic or otherwise. Hang out at a convenience store in a poor neighborhood anywhere and you’ll think that the Hoosier Lottery is the biggest deal in the world!

        • basil berchekas jr March 7, 2013 at 2:39 pm · Reply

          One might say that the former “general store” has been replaced by the “convenience store”. One friend of mine who owned an Exxon convenience store told a customer who complained about his high prices who said “I could get this cheaper at WALMART” responded as follows….”You could either wait in line to check out at WALMART after finding a parking place, and get your better price; my store however, is for “your convenience” though…” (i.e., in and out quickly…)

      • Clyde R "Rick" Cottrell Jr. March 9, 2013 at 10:19 am · Reply

        Regarding streetcars: In the last 1946 photo showing South East Street, the electric wires for the street cars seem to still be in place overhead, but the tracks don’t seem to be visible in the street anymore. Perhaps this was that small era where the city ran electric busses that drew power from overhead lines? Many Indianapolis streets today still have the old streetcar tracks under the asphalt pavement, occasionally peeking through.

  4. Louis Mahern March 7, 2013 at 9:39 am · Reply

    Just across the street from our Kelly Street house was Beckman’s Grocery. The Beckman family lived in the back. During the war my mom saved bacon grease in an empty coffee can. She continued after the war and would allow me to take the can of grease ever to Beckman’s where I could exchange it for 5 cents or rather 5 cents worth of candy. I believe the grease was used in the manufacture of explosives. Periodically a panel truck made deliveries to Beckman’s. Across the back of the truck was written “Hit Me Easy. I’m Full of Pie.”

  5. Norm Morford March 7, 2013 at 1:37 pm · Reply

    Two items — what relation might these folks have been to those who ran the Bova wholesale fruit and vegetble business at a terminal on Mass. Ave. east of Sherman? That terminal no longer stands.

    Second, many mom and pop groceries would have a bread box outside for early delivery of fresh bread. One I remember was in front of a grocery [no longer there] at the main intersection in Hortonville between Westfield and Sheridan in Hamilton Co. It had the name of West’s _____________ on it — and West’s bakery was later owned by the late Steve West, former city council member, Indpls. His daughter Emily still runs the operation and a charity spun off. The last I knew West Baking had a principal customer in McDonald’s to make buns.

    • basil berchekas jr March 7, 2013 at 2:46 pm · Reply

      Remember doing banking business at the Indiana National Bank Produce Terminal branch, as this branch, as this branch was the closest INB branch to our neighborhood at 21st and Emerson…(in history, the old fomer Brightwood Airport, a small private field, was located there before, just eastward of the Interstate Foundries. I heard from an older East Side gentleman that Amelia Earhart flew from this small strip once upon a time).

    • Joan Hostetler March 7, 2013 at 2:48 pm · Reply

      Norm, I didn’t have time this week to dig very deep into the family history, but I hope some family members will answer your question. I can add that John Bova Conti came to the US in 1902 from Palermo. According the Divita, he and his brothers made liqueurs and cordials (in Italy?), before he got into the grocery business with Mrs. Mascari. Sometimes he is in directories under Bova, and other times under Conti. He does not appear on a family tree chart in ancestry.com, but I found several newspaper articles about him.

  6. Donna Winsted March 7, 2013 at 3:04 pm · Reply

    Love this article, Joan! There was an area in Ben Davis when I was a kid (early to mid-1950s) that had a grouping of Mom & Pop stores at the intersection of W. Washington St and High School Rd. Many of those stores had living space in the back. I really hated to see them disappear!

  7. Gus Mascari March 7, 2013 at 5:06 pm · Reply

    The story is accurate, but failed to mention that the Mascari family ran the store after J Bovaconti, from the late 30′s until the late 50′s. I know, it was my grandparents, Tom & Marie Mascari. I remember visiting the store as a child.

    • Joan Hostetler March 7, 2013 at 11:09 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Gus! I was hoping that family members would speak up. I didn’t have time to check my city directories to find out when the store closed. I will update the story (that is the good thing about writing blogs). Maybe you can answer Shari’s question: are the owners of Bovaconti Jewelers in Fountain Square related? I know they display copies of many Italian-related stores and people from Indianapolis.

    • Rev. Michael J Bova Conti September 10, 2013 at 11:42 am · Reply

      I would like to share some info with you re John Bova Conti. He was the nephew of my Grandfather Pasquale Bova Conti

  8. Tina Smith March 7, 2013 at 10:14 pm · Reply

    Both, Bova and Mascari families are still striving on the south side. I love reading about side side of Indianapolis history even though I was raised on another state.

    • basil berchekas jr March 7, 2013 at 11:33 pm · Reply

      Relative to the Mascari family, I met a gentleman whose last name was Mascari (at a meeting) who was in management of street repair and maintenance for the City of Indianapolis in 1968, and was quite versed on this subject. Also, remember the Caito family had a facility at the Indianapolis Produce Terminal. Are they connected to these other two produce families?

    • Linda Allison August 19, 2013 at 12:48 pm · Reply

      Grew up with some of the Bova family on the southside. There was an elderly Mr Bova who used to come into the White Castle on the strip for very early morning coffee. We loved him.

  9. Gus Mascari March 8, 2013 at 11:17 am · Reply

    Basil, that would be John Mascari, he was one of the Mascari twins (identical brother Mike), They both hold or held track records at Manual HS.
    Tom, the son of Josephine, married Marie Laschavio. They owned and ran the store until the late 50′s. They had 11 children, 10 boys and 1 girl, lived 2 doors up from the store. Three of the siblings are still with us and doing well.
    There are many stories, rumors and presumably legends surrounding the store, including Al Capone making frequent visits to the store when in Indianapolis. Many of the old timers that remember it will talk about my grandmothers homemade fresh bread she would make from Thursday thru Sunday of the week and how it was the best Italian bread anywhere. People would travel from all over central Indiana to buy bread, pasta and Italian meats.
    Bovaconti Jewelers in Fountain Square is owned by me. In keeping with the local independent shops, I wanted to use a unique name for the store, what more unique then that name. I have vintage pictures on the walls of the era, family and John Bovaconti pictures. There is also an Italian restaurant on S. Emerson and Stop 11 called Augustinos that has many pictures adorning the walls of this store & family. The restaurant is using the recipe of the Mascari family for their Sicilian sauce

    • basil berchekas jr March 8, 2013 at 12:29 pm · Reply

      Gus, I appreciate this information very much! Always had professional respect for John. When I’m in Indpls visiting again, I’ll try and drop by and say hello1

  10. Rev. Michael J Bova Conti September 7, 2013 at 9:49 am · Reply

    Giovanni Bova Conti was a nephew of my Grandfather Pasquale Bova Conti who came to USA with family in 1900. Pasquale had come to the US also in 1892 and 1898 before returning with his wife Angela and three younger children. My eldest Uncle, Bartolomeo Bova Conti remembers traveling in Texas, Oklahoma and Indianapolis with his father ( and I presume other friends or relatives ) looking at places to open a business. They finally settled in Boston and also ran an Italian Store on Columbus Ave and then on Huntington Ave near the present Boston Public Library. I do have a picture of Giovanni ( John Bova Conti ) that he sent to his uncle ( my Grandfather Pasquale ) and he looks like a rather robust man sporting a racoon type coat from the 1920′s.

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