Based on interviews with John and Anthony Ristuccia, second and third generation owners of Bob’s Spa, and William R. Fernandez, current owner of the store, in July 2009. Special thanks to John Lovett who suggested this article and participated in the interviews.
Ask anyone growing up south of the Monument where they could find industrial sized bologna and cheese sandwiches on super-fresh bulkie rolls, the plumpest jelly donuts, the smoothest ice cream, the foamiest root beer floats, the coldest tall bottles of Royal Crown, Pepsi and Nehi Orange, an honor-system penny candy case and a kind and trusting proprietor who’d carry your family “on-the-cuff” when needed, and the answer can only be “Bob’s Spa” at 128 South Street.
Nearing its centennial, with 90 uninterrupted years under one family’s devoted management through two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Middle Eastern and other military excursions, rationing and shortages, the Great Depression, several recessions and three generations of family ownership, Bob’s Spa, from its humble beginnings in 1912 as a tiny fruit store, continues to serve the vibrant South Street neighborhood’s ever-changing needs under a new and equally dedicated family management.
A young man’s odyssey of 30,000 miles from the tiny seaside village of Malfa, on the island of Salina in the Aeolian Island group off the coast of Sicily, to founding a Jamaica Plain icon at 128 South Street reads like an Horatio Alger novel.
Bartholomew Ristuccia was born in Malfa in 1891. He left his hometown at age 17, with just a fourth grade education, to join a cousin in Sydney, Australia, who owned a fruit store there. Then as now, Australia was a favorite destination for émigrés from Malfa.
Bartholomew loved the fruit business and was determined to make a future for himself in that field. Learning all that he could from his cousin he left Sydney and arrived in Jamaica Plain in 1910, now a burgeoning fruit expert. He immediately went to work at Favaloro, Saltamacchia and Company’s fruit store at 343a Centre Street, near Blessed Sacrament church and Hyde Square. Favaloro, Saltamacchia and Company also operated a store at 74 Green Street. The principals, Joseph Favaloro and Giuseppe Saltamacchia, were Bartholomew’s cousins from Malfa.
With two years experience at Favaloro’s fruit store under his belt, in 1912, at the age of 21, Bartholomew joined Joseph Favaloro and Giuseppe Saltamacchia as partners in a new fruit store at 128 South Street. Soon, Bartholomew bought-out his cousins and renamed the store “Bob’s Spa.” (Bartholomew had taken the name Bob and was known that way for the rest of his life.)
Thus was launched a family owned and operated business thriving for 90 years under the continuous operation of the Ristuccia family until 2001 when it was sold to William R. Fernandez. As it nears its centennial, the store is now called Fernandez Spa and Liquors and it continues to thrive serving the diverse community flourishing in the neighborhood.
From its modest start in 1912, focusing on fruit and fruit baskets, Bob’s Spa grew slowly, but steadily. One of its first customers, Annie Gavin of 15 Boynton Street, remained steadfast for the next 50 or so years, as did many others in the neighborhood.
Other long-time customers were James “Jimmy” Lovett and his son John. Jimmy owned and operated the last blacksmith shop in Jamaica Plain, located at 10 McBride Street, just around the corner from Bob’s Spa. Lovett’s shop had been operated previously by John “Jack” Mahoney and before him by Ignatius J. Craffey. Jimmy Lovett was born in 1905. He shoed the Boston and MDC Police horses, Hood Milk’s and the Larz Anderson estate horses until he was 84. Many an inverted horseshoe hanging in local homes and many a local game of horseshoes owed their origins to the Lovetts.
Jimmy Lovett would stop in at Bob’s after Sunday Mass at St.Thomas Aquinas Church and those visits made a lasting impression on his son, John. Jimmy taught his son the farrier’s (horseshoeing) trade and he worked at it for several years before landing a job at the Telephone Company.
John Lovett, 2009
One of the major sources of Bob’s customer loyalty was the ability of nearly anyone known to Bob to buy “on-the-cuff”, i.e. on credit. The term originated in the early 1900’s when bartenders with starched cuffs would keep a tally of a customer’s drinks on the cuff. At Bob’s, there were no credit checks, no forms, no bills sent, just the faith that the customer would settle up, most, if not all, of his outstanding bill at the end of the month. Most did, but a few skipped and Bob took the hit, preferring, true to his benevolent nature, to think it was the hard times and not the customer’s intent to cheat him.
Bookkeeping for the credit customers consisted of small notebooks for each individual customer with hand-written entries for various purchases. The tally of a given purchase would be done in pencil on the outside of the brown paper bag holding the charged goods so the customer would have a record of the transaction. The total of the transaction would then be entered in the customer’s individual book.
And many a loyal customer was created by the fact that an 8 year old could be sent to Bob’s with a note for a pack of Pall Malls and it would be duly honored because the tobacco laws hadn’t kicked in yet.
Assuming 50 customers per 18-hour day for 90 years, there could have been over 1.6 million people entering Bob’s Spa. Even today, many of those former customers visit the store for the Sunday paper as they return to weekly services at St. Thomas. These nostalgia trips keep alive the memory of the Ristuccia family’s devotion to the store and their customers’ goodwill over many years during the good, and not-so-good times.
The original 1912 fruit store was just a rented corner of the block of stores between McBride and Boynton Streets owned by the John W. Patterson family. The Pattersons operated a liquor store and the Arborway Market for many years in the same block. Contrary to what most of his customers believed, Bob never owned the store that he and his family occupied for 90 years. They remained the tenants of the Patterson family and it’s successors until they sold the store in 2001.
Joseph A. Patterson (middle) poses circa 1912 with two employees of Patterson’s Market in the rear of 128 South St. On the right is Edward Finnerty, who later became a Boston police officer. Photograph provided courtesy of John Patterson.
As a hedge against escalating rent, Bob bought the old Wilson’s Meat Market building on the north corner of McBride Street as a possible future store site. Mr. Wilson was something out of a Studs Terkel book with his standard butcher’s straw hat, blood-stained sleeve covers, band-aid wrapped fingers and an apron that very, very rarely saw the inside of a wash tub. It was alleged that he sold horsemeat as beef during the Big War. Nevertheless, he’d collect the ration stamps and tokens required for the meat purchase. Whatever it was, we ate it and we survived.
The large room above the market had been a pool parlor and men’s club, perhaps at an earlier time catering to the clientele of the nearby pre-prohibition Coffee Tree Inn at 16 McBride Street, which later was the site of the Washington Wet Wash laundry.
The Patterson’s also owned a small variety store at the corner of Woodman and Jamaica Streets. These Patterson business interests presented a bit of a challenge for Bob as he tried to grow his own store. For example, each time Bob wanted to add a line of food or merchandise, he needed to get Mr. Patterson’s approval, especially if the item being added was competing with the same being sold by Mr. Patterson. Eventually, Mr. Patterson would relent and Bob could keep up with his customers’ demands and remain competitive with his landlord and the many small variety stores and markets within walking distance.
The small competing stores along South Street included Dolan’s, Mary Kelly’s, Andy’s Spa, Mouradian’s Market, a one-man A&P store run by Arthur MacMillan of McBride Street next to Farrell’s Drugstore and Cavalier’s Variety further down South Street. Another one-man A&P store, Caraber’s Variety, Kelly’s Market and Campbell’s were located on Call Street. And Woody’s Variety, owned by Woodrow Barbour, was located on McBride Street.
Other short-lived small stores, with long forgotten names, dotted the area as others tried the “easy” life of running a small variety store.
Growing the Business
Weathering the impacts of wars and the related rationing and shortages, recessions, inflations, and The Great Depression, Bob’s Spa continued to grow, becoming known as a purveyor of fine, gift quality, fruit baskets. It was commonly known among the poor in those days that a family didn’t have fruit in the house unless someone was really sick, so the sight of Bob’s beautiful fruit baskets was something for most of us to crave.
The neighborhood was growing too. A substantial streetcar maintenance facility located across South Street, known locally as the “car-barns,” which, along with expansion of the public transit systems at the Arborway and Forest Hills terminals brought streetcar, and later, bus riders up and down South Street. Fortuitously, a streetcar stop was located right at Bob’s door and later; the former car-barn site became the turnaround for the Dudley streetcar. And, as the automobile became available to working people, the public was transiting through the southern end of Jamaica Plain to access and enjoy the Arnold Arboretum, Forest Hills Cemetery and Franklin Park.
Nearby, at Child Street, the City’s DPW yard, the Boston Consolidated Gas Company maintenance facility and Kinney Pump Company on lower McBride Street and the Barbara Lee Chocolate factory on Call Street, attracted workers who found Bob’s Spa.
Expansion of St. Thomas’ elementary and high schools, many small retail and service businesses sprouting up along South Street and development of housing on Carolina Ave, South, Child, McBride, Boynton, Hall and Rosemary Streets were contributing to Bob’s Spa’s growing presence in the neighborhood.
Other revenue generators were the “Smokers,” an evening of newsreels and sports films barely visible through a dense blue cloud of cigar and cigarette smoke, at the American Legion Post No. 76, then located across South Street, and the annual carnivals at the vacant former car-barns site.
Another major boost to the business came with the construction of the Housing Project on the former car-barn site in the early 50’s. The store continues to serve the many families located there.
Nearly the End
Among the many bumps along the way, perhaps the most significant was the fire on December 24, 1927, that nearly wiped Bob out. With the same perseverance that sustained him in the early days, and the help of friendly merchants and suppliers, Bob immediately reopened in the vacant store next door until his fire-damaged store could be repaired and reopened.
Life in America
Bob’s personal life over the span of his 65 years in America was marked by his strong spiritual beliefs, his devotion to family and honesty and integrity in all his business dealings. He was a lifelong member of the St. Thomas Knights of Columbus Council No. 120, achieving the Fourth Degree, and, because of his obvious devotion to his new country, he was made an honorary member of the American Legion Post No.76, directly across the street from his store. He was also a lifetime member in the Massachusetts Retail Grocer’s Association and the Boston Retail Grocer’s Association. The only thing Bob feared in America was driving, and after one serious close call he never drove again.
His marriage to Rosalina Caravalio from East Milton produced four children, John, Robert, Rose and Mary, all of whom, along with their spouses, at one time or another worked in the store. In the early days of their marriage Bob and Rosalina lived at Hyde Square, then South and Rosemary Streets. They finally settled in their own home at 16 John A. Andrew Street. Married for over 50 years, the Ristuccia’s experienced the same economic ups and downs as their customers. In fact, during the Depression, Bob and his wife lost their house at 16 John A. Andrew Street, but later were able to buy it back for less than its original price. This was serendipity of the sweetest kind because the foreclosing bank had callously dismissed Bob’s plea for time.
When World War II came, three of Bob’s children, John, Robert and Mary went off to serve. The growing business was open from 6 am to 12 midnight for many years in order to survive in the retail store environment. The burden of those long days, wartime rationing and shortages, and the uncertain post-war economic conditions had to be borne by Bob and his wife. After the war, the returning Ristuccia children were drafted to duty in the store, thus relieving Bob and his wife for a long overdue vacation.
The store was the family’s life and the long workdays were standard fare for the many family members who worked there over the years.
The Second Generation
On March 4, 1927, Bob’s youngest son, John, was delivered by Dr. Frederick W. Beering Jr., of 61 South Street, (known as the Flying Dutchman in his Harvard football days,) at the Ristuccia family home at 16 John A. Andrew Street.
Dr. Beering was probably the most widely known and visited doctor in that part of Jamaica Plain because he usually neglected to collect payment for an office visit, and when he did, he’d often give it back to one of the children he just examined or contribute it toward the cost of the prescription he’d just written. The good doctor claimed, without a hint of bitterness, that he was owed many thousands for unpaid services and medicines he himself paid for. His prescriptions often came into C.B. Rogers Drugstore with a note that it be charged to his account.
Johnny Ristuccia went to the Agassiz, Bowditch and Curley Schools followed by Boston Trade School to learn the “tin-knocker” (sheet metal) trade he loved. In his shop days at Trade School, Johnny made radiator covers for the State House and fuel tanks for the Boston Fire Department’s fireboat.
Johnny remembers earning money selling newspapers, especially the Boston Daily Record’s Payoff edition, which carried the daily “number.” This was the number bet with the local bookies - not the electronic State operated Lottery system existing today. The daily number was the last three digits to the left of the decimal points as shown in the daily pari-mutuel handle, or amount bet, (win, place and show) at a designated horseracing track. The fourth number was the first digit to the right of the decimal point in the “show” row.
A favorite number, quickly scribbled by the local bookie on a slip of paper, had a promised payoff of 600 to one, or $60 for a ten-cent bet. After the bet was placed, the bettor needed to check his luck in the “Payoff” (late) edition of the Boston Daily Record that evening. The Record was the closest thing to the tabloid ‘Enquirer’ of its time and it published the pari-mutuel betting numbers that in turn formed the daily number. The earlier, or “Home” editions of the Record did not carry this vital piece of information.
Johnny peddled the papers in various taverns, including Doyle’s on Washington Street. “The Chapel” on McBride Street and several other local pubs as well as more distant watering holes in downtown Boston. All paperboys were given a Newsboy’s Transit Pass to ride the elevated trains and streetcars free, to sell papers to the riders.
Johnny earned seven tenths of a cent per copy sold, (70 cents/100 copies) plus an occasional tip. Notwithstanding the meager commission structure, he was able to buy himself a wonderful new Western Auto, balloon tire, single speed bike with chain guard, kickstand, and a thumb-operated bell he had spotted in the window at Western Auto near Fenway Park. Johnny was riding high.
Seeking better pay, Johnny became a pinboy at the Arborway Bowlaway, downstairs at the corner of Boynton and South Streets, earning the respectable sum of five-cents per string while ducking flying pins and balls in the dark caverns at the end of the well-worn alleys. Occasionally a tip would come sliding down the alley after an evening of accurately spotting the candlepins for several strings bowled by the bowling leagues using the alleys. An evening’s pay of $1.50 to $2 was possible, and that was a significant night’s pay.
After high school, Johnny became an electrician’s helper at the Boston Navy yard pulling cable on ships being overhauled there. In 1944, at 18, he entered the Army and served aboard an Army tugboat in Seattle, Washington. After his discharge in 1945 he felt the not-too-subtle pressure to come to work in the family’s store. So he came aboard and stayed there for his next 47 working years.
In 1949 Johnny married one of his customers who had walked in one day and sent sparks flying about his head! Jane McCallam, from Hall Street, was a 1946 graduate of St. Thomas High School (for girls only back then.) Johnny was smitten and stayed smitten for 54 years. They were married at St. Thomas church and lived initially on Rosemary Street and then in the Project across the street from the store. They moved to Child Street and finally to 126 Montclair Avenue, West Roxbury, for the past 40 years. They enjoyed a wonderful marriage, raising four children, Anthony, John, Paul and Jean, all imbued with the Ristuccia family’s tradition of retail grocery store management. Johnny lost his soul mate when Jean passed away in 2004.
Johnny, now well into his retirement, maintains his ties to the store in several ways including as longtime proud owner of Mass license plate “Bob’s.”
After World War II, Bob’s daughter Rose married Mike Caliri. Soon, Mike became a partner in the Spa, and he and Rose were able to move to a fine house on May Street. They lived there until the late 1960s when Mike left Bob’s Spa and the Caliris moved to Chatham, Mass. to open a small store of their own. They remained there for the rest of their lives, raising their nine children in Chatham.
Shortly after the partnership was formed with Mike Caliri, Bob began to cut back on his involvement with the store and around 1950 turned his interest over to Johnny. Bob retired, more or less, in the early 50’s but of course he could not stop coming in to see how things were going.
The new management under Johnny and Mike lasted until Mike’s move to Chatham in about 1969. When Mike left, Bill White became a partner and under Johnny and Bill’s management the store was remodeled in 1970. Bill White stayed about 10 years.
Other employees over the years were Bob Micelli, Buddy Gillis and nearly all the Ristuccia family members.
Bob continued his semi-retirement until his death on November 15, 1975 at the age of 84, far away from his small hometown of Malfa, Messina Province, Sicily.
Everyone seems to have a different favorite memory of Bob’s Spa. Many recall the festive neighborhood gathering packed in after each of the Sunday morning services at nearby St. Thomas Church.
Commuters remember sitting out a wintry snowstorm inside the warm store waiting for the snowplowing streetcar to come up from the Arborway, followed by the big center entrance streetcar to get them to school, work, shopping etc.
Anthony and John Ristuccia, 2009
Several generations remember “hanging out” at the store’s front door. Bob tolerated it but Johnny thought the kids’ presence was an effective deterrent to hold-ups.
As a meeting place/waiting room it was unsurpassed, offering jumbo 25-cent bologna and cheese sandwiches on super sized Kasanof’s Bakery bulkie rolls and hot coffee and delicious donuts made by Mike’s donuts up the street. In later years, Johnny remembers three or four different coffee klatches of seniors that would gather at the fountain at their regular times each morning.
In earlier years, who could forget the creamy smooth homemade ice cream Bob developed in his Depression era ice cream machine. Only two other local establishments could boast ownership of the same long cylindrical ice cream machine; Sammy’s Drugstore at Green and Elm Streets, and Busy Bee Spa up at Hyde Square.
The unique feature of a five-cent cone at Bob’s was that the mixed ice cream was first discharged from the machine into a paper cone-shaped wrapper and a paper lid was placed on top. Batches of these paper-wrapped cone shapes would then go in the freezer until ready to be served. When you ordered one, the spiral paper wrapping would be unwound while the cone was upside down on the server’s palm. It would then be flipped over into a sugar or cake cone, and finally the top paper lid peeled off. Bob often claimed that this machine saved the store during the Depression and he was thankful that he could offer a penny sale on a second pint (normally forty cents) of ice cream at the ends of the dreary depression months to help pay the rent during those tough times.
The soda fountain had been installed in the 1920’s and was typical of the period with the marble top, high wire-back seats and the array of containers for ingredients of frappes, milk shakes, sundaes etc. Bob’s frappes and sundaes were unsurpassed with the generous serving of always-fresh ingredients and toppings he used. Root beer floats at the soda fountain looked like an old time beer ad with a huge head of foamy root beer and a scoop of ice cream afloat in it. And the tonic cooler would be jammed packed with tall ice cold Royal Crown, Pepsi and Nehi Orange drinks to be enjoyed with a Devil Dog that in those days was about a foot long, or so it seemed.
Attesting to Bob’s trust in his young customers, and the knowledge that weekly Confession loomed for most of us, the glass penny candy case, in full view of all, could be accessed from its rear where a small brown paper bag would be filled by the young customer with an amount of penny candy he or she desired. The bag would then be brought to the tobacco counter and the youngster would declare its value. Seldom, if ever, was the bag’s contents checked against the declared value. Bob had an unerring eye for character and besides; one wouldn’t dare violate the established honor system.
A Grandson Takes the Helm
Johnny’s son, Anthony Ristuccia, was born on March 16, 1960 and became the third generation to manage the store when his father retired in 1992 at age 65. Anthony, his wife Donna and their two children, live in Norwood, MA.
Anthony lost no time getting the store into the 20th century, if somewhat belatedly, by installing Western Union, credit cards, and a direct store telephone that precluded the need to ring home three times from one of the three phone booths, get the nickel or dime back, and await the call back. Of course these callbacks were never taken in the third phone booth over in the corner that was reserved for the bookies’ use only.
In 1995 Anthony bought Patterson’s Liquor Store next door and Bob’s expanded again. This addition generated a new revenue stream along with its related responsibility for store management.
The store continued to change and grow, but the basic premise of great customer relations never changed nor, however, did the long hours and infrequent vacations. So, seeking a career that would allow him more time with his family, Anthony sold the store in June 2001 to William R. Fernandez.
A New Era
William R. Fernandez owns the store now and it’s called Fernandez Spa and Liquors. He also owns the entire Patterson block that originally rented to Bob’s Spa. Bill’s family owns several other liquor stores as well.
Bill came here from the Dominican Republic in 1984 and attended Dorchester High School. He presently lives in Roslindale with his wife Maria and their three children.
His observations since buying Bob’s Spa are the wonderful reception that they’ve had as new owners of a store with such a long and rich neighborhood tradition and the constant flow of people who grew up with the store coming in and mentioning the pleasant memories it has for them.
Bill Fernandez is proud to continue the goodwill and reputation of this local landmark and he’s very grateful to the Ristuccia family for all that they’ve done to help him launch the new era of Bob’s Spa.
While the Ristuccia era as ended, the lasting memories of the place continue to enrich the lives of generations of former patrons. The Ristuccias really cared for their customers and their customers cared about them. As the store nears its 100th birthday, rolling along under Bill Fernandez’s watchful eye, we can only imagine what the young immigrant from Malfa, Sicily, would think about his cherished fruit stand. We think he would be proud indeed.
by Peter O’Brien, August, 2009