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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Russo Family Business Survives

Frank Russo had a nervous breakdown during the 1967 riots and never really recovered. “His son John recalls, “The shock of the riots was too much for him to take. My mom and I had to take over most of the decision-making as he relied on us to take care of the business. I was 18. Dad also suffered a series of stokes that slowed him down. My dad always said, ‘I was born in that building and will die there.’ By 1965, the Russo family businesses began experiencing the same financial problems as the dying downtown shopping district. Moreover, another condition was also undermining their trade.   

After the Civil Rights Public Accommodations Act of 1964 was enacted, federal civil rights and desegregation laws became gradually enforced. This legislation served to at least partially relieve some restrictions concerning where African-Americans could now travel, shop and congregate. As a result, many businesses that once flourished in racially “closed” communities and neighborhoods began to lose trade and eventually disintegrate, including the Russo food and wine businesses.

Owner Frank Russo was totally opposed to moving the store away from the corner of Division and Franklin, but meanwhile the business suffered substantially, especially after those three days of rioting in July of 1967, which involved burning and looting of stores in that area. We closed down G.B. Russo and Sons right after the riots happened. The only business left in our buildings at the time was a pool hall. Only one apartment was being rented. We moved the G.B. Russo and Sons store to 1935 Eastern S.E. that same year. Frank gave the pizzeria business and control of the old buildings to Joe Russo and Joe’s son Frank G. Russo. They ran the pizzeria there for a few more years. Joe lived in the upstairs apartment (752-1/2 Division) almost until the building was torn down.”

In typical Russo style, they re-invented their business, and recovered. While still a teenager, in the 1960s, well before he could legally taste what he was studying, John began developing the wine business for his father Frank’s store. “My aunt Rose Russo, told me to take over the wine business when I was fourteen. So I studied merchandising and read as much wine-related literature as I could find. I had some very good mentors in the industry, particularly Tom Cariano of Henry Fox Sales and Norm Viviano, owner of Viviano Wine Importers,” John recalls.

 “Around 1970, my cousin and best friend, Norman Viviano, offered me a very good job.  I accepted and worked there for a few years. In 1974, my parents asked my brother Joe and I to return to the company. They were getting older and decided that if I didn't return, they would close the business and retire. In 1976 we built the store on 29th Street. John and most of the family are no longer associated with the original G.B. Russo and Sons business, which is still located on 29th street. John’s business, at 4301 Kalamazoo S.E., near the corner of 44th and Kalamazoo S.E. in the Towne and Country Shopping Plaza, is Carrettino Italian Market and Wine.

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