Giovannoni’s Market, Generosity as Legendary as Their Work Ethic
By Lauren Coodley
As of 1852, the City of Napa had only 300 permanent residents. That year, silversmith William Jacks bought land in Napa and built his house. An early map shows its location on Levee Street (now Riverside) and Grant Street (now Brown). His nursery extended to the river. In l860, Jacks married Abigail Woodruff, and they lived the rest of their lives in the house, where perhaps his botanical library was located in a room with bay windows looking onto the river. Jacks helped found both the First Presbyterian Church and Tulocay Cemetery.
By l870, seven wharves ran along the waterfront, along with lumber yards and warehouses. Steamers carried both industrial and industrial products, sometimes entire flocks and herds of livestock. Factories could ship their goods to San Francisco and beyond. A Napa County pamphlet published at the time proclaimed, “There is work for men and women here. Young man, come west! Come west to Napa to start a factory.” And they did.
While visiting Napa, Albert Sawyer from New Hampshire noticed that local butchers were discarding sheep pelts with wool still on them, so he purchased a pile of discards and began a wool-pulling business on the banks of the Napa River. Soon he was curing hides, pickling them in brine, and shipping them to customers back east. In 1870, Albert and his father founded the Sawyer Tanning Company on South Coombs Street. A year later, Sawyer invited Emanuel Manasse, to join him. Manasse, a German immigrant, rapidly developed new methods for tanning sheep skin and buckskin. Emanuel’s first house, built in 1886 on 443 Brown Street south of Oak, was known as the Manasse Mansion until the year 2000 when it was renamed the Violet Mansion, now Historic Landmark Number 7800072.
By 1926, Sawyer was the first tannery west of Chicago to produce patent leather, and the next year it developed chromed tan leather, used for softball gloves, as well as leather for baseball and welding gloves. The Coombs Street area was a neighborhood of tanners, paper hangers, stevedores, and river men.
Ray Guadagni, who grew up in “Little Italy” across the river from Sawyer, recalls, “It seemed to me that everyone was Italian in Napa…No matter how small one’s backyard was, everyone had an Italian garden of vegetables and herbs, including plenty of basil, garlic and rosemary.”
The store once known as Giovannoni’s began with just such a garden. Augustine Giovannoni arrived in San Francisco from Genoa, and moved to Napa in the early 1920s. He worked in a quicksilver mine in Calistoga, and married Josephine Lanaro. Starting with Augustine’s horse- drawn ice cream cart, the family built a grocery store on the first floor of their home at Brown and Oak.
Grandson Tony explains, “They had a large lot and had an extensive garden. They started by selling the excess produce to neighbors and friends, and eventually they expanded and started a small market.” They called it South Market Grocery, and later, Giovannoni’s Market. The family lived on the second floor and ran the market on the first floor. Augustine Giovannoni worked as a ship painter at a Napa shipyard to help make ends meet. His wife and kids ran the store while he was working.
Son Larry recalled his boyhood, “I remember going around with my father to get grocery orders. Most people didn’t have a phone.” After going door-to-door taking orders, they would return later with the deliveries. Augustine Giovannoni picked up groceries at the wharf down the block from the corner of Oak and Brown. After unloading cargo, the boats packed fruit from Napa orchards to carry back to San Francisco. Peggy Aaron worked part-time at the store from 1957 through 1959 while in high school.
As she recalls, “Augie dedicated his life to food and family. Lots of neighbors lived paycheck to paycheck. Credit cards were not yet part of their profiles. This tough businessman had the biggest heart. He would run a tab for the locals who needed it and wait for payday to collect. His generosity was as legendary as his work ethic.” She remembers “seeing Augie G out in front of the Browns Street Market with apron and broom. His sons Larry and Ernest learned at a very young age how to work in the market. I don’t remember Ernie or Larry or Augie ever missing a day of work, and “mom sending us with a dollar to buy 3 pounds of ground beef for meatloaf dinner. If we didn’t have the dollar yet, he would carefully write down in his little notebook, and collect when paycheck came.”
Barry Nelson adds to the picture, “My parents had an account there so my Mom would send me there without any money to buy stuff, at which time they would record the price on a stiff cardboard type document which was filed with many other account holders...They even let me buy her cigarettes! Mom would then pay the total bill at the end of each month.”
Dann Shively adds, “I remember members of the family working there. I’m sure some of the boys were probably only 10 or so years older than I, but they seemed like adults and were very kind.”
By the early 60s, sons Larry and Ernest had taken over running the store and decided to undertake a major expansion. The new market was built just to the north of the existing home, which was then lifted and moved on a trailer past the bridge on Milton Road/Edgerly Island. The plot where the house once sat became the parking lot for the new store.
Tony explains, “Larry ran the meat department, which was known for its full-service counter and old-fashioned butchers. Beef was trucked in from Idaho, and top quality was always a priority. Whether it was prime rib for Christmas, turkeys for Thanksgiving, corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day, or aged steaks for a special BBQ; people went out of their way to shop there. Families relied on Giovannoni’s to make their meal memorable. Ernest ran the rest of the store, but his focus was produce. He would leave before dawn and drive to the wholesale market down in Oakland, where he would search out and hand select the best products and vendors. He was so adept at this that he was eventually purchasing the produce for several local restaurants. In later years this part of the business was expanded, and his son John now runs a wholesale produce delivery business.“
Between 1973 and 1977, Don de Soto worked at the store as a stockboy and bagger. He drove his ‘67 mustang from Napa High School to work, and in 1977 met his wife Julie there.
He recalls, “The meat dept was unbelievable, people would bring custom cut of steers there…A lot of recurring customers with paychecks from Kaiser Steel, Napa Glove, the Tannery; most everybody got paid weekly and lived within a couple of blocks to the store…a lot of fragile elderly people, with shopping baskets…it really was a magical time.”
Another customer, Cyn Langlois, adds, “We lived just around the corner in the 70s. Larry used to help my Mom and I out on a few occasions when we were short on funds and gave us a food voucher for groceries. He was an angel. I miss that little store. Good memories, and I still remember the layout.”
I miss it too. In 1979, I was living at 555 Riverside Drive with my husband and toddler; our tangled yard of blackberries and anise faced onto the back of Giovannoni’s Market. William Jacks’ home must have once been across the street. I pushed the stroller to the store every few days to get those glorious vegetables, but I knew nothing of its history. Now, I finally do.