Hidden Gem: Melrose landmark Chiappini’s on the market

Local hangout has sold gas, worms, beer for past 80 years

By Nick Blank
Posted 8/14/19

MELROSE – Chiappini’s – the venerable gas station, bait shop and bar – is on the market after being family-owned for the past 80 years.

The store is adorned with stuffed deer, bobcats and …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Don't have an ID?


Print subscribers

If you're a print subscriber, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one.

Non-subscribers

Click here to see your options for subscribing.

Single day pass

You also have the option of purchasing 24 hours of access, for $1.00. Click here to purchase a single day pass.

Hidden Gem: Melrose landmark Chiappini’s on the market

Local hangout has sold gas, worms, beer for past 80 years

Posted

MELROSE – Chiappini’s – the venerable gas station, bait shop and bar – is on the market after being family-owned for the past 80 years.

The store is adorned with stuffed deer, bobcats and a Swamp Thing. On a recent Monday afternoon, a few Chiappini’s regulars stopped by. Robin Chiappini, 68, is a third-generation owner, and he now runs it with his brother, Mark.

He joked with a longtime customer, “Oh, I thought this money was just for me.”

Chiappini’s was founded during the Great Depression in 1935 by Chiappini’s grandfather, “Papa Joe.” A Gulf Oil station, the store was paid off at a penny a gallon by the early-1950s.

It’s a watering hole and community gathering place. Employees pump gas, wipe windshields and check oil. Fishing supplies, books and bumper stickers are available. Bands perform on Fridays. Chiappini called it a convenient store rather than a convenience store.

“We’re like a community center. Everybody comes to us for anything in the world,” Chiappini said. “Whether we know it or not we tell them.”

Robin Chiappini has overseen the store since 1985, and now he feels like it’s time to retire. He said his last vacation was 15 years ago.

“I’ve seen a lot of people come and a lot of people go. I see them for years and years and years and then they die,” Chiappini said. “I’ve got tons of stories and memories of things that happened at the store.”

Eddie Joe Parrish has worked at Chiappini’s for 42 years. He orchestrates the “Great worm giveaway,” for children who are eager to fish.

“We took care of a whole lot of people around here,” Parrish said. “I agree with (the decision to sell), it’s not easy after 84 years. We don’t want to work here ‘till we die.”

A picture of Babe Ruth posing with two fish he caught near Melrose still hangs above the register. Chiappini said Roger Maris, Doris Day, Richard Boone and Steve Spurrier are among the store’s other famous visitors.

Stories aren’t in short supply. Chiappini lifted a metal barstool. He said soldiers returning from World War II, young and ready for a fight, once used wooden stools as weapons.

“Papa Joe got tired of buying wooden chairs once a month, so he ended up buying these metal chairs from Camp Blanding,” Chiappini said. “These things are old.”

The small-town bar yielded interesting characters. J.R. Smith, or “Smitty,” was a person Chiappini said was the most unique man he ever met. Smitty was colorblind and couldn’t join the Army Air Corp., so he flew over North Africa for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The man had a thick handlebar mustache, and Chiappini described him as a debonair. Chiappini said Smitty, a bulky college football player, claimed to escort Vivien Lee at the premiere of “Gone with the Wind” at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre.

Smitty was a decades-long regular at Chiappini’s: coffee in the morning; beer at night. When Smitty was sick, he was urged to visit a hospital. Men in the store found Smitty on the floor of the restroom when he was gone longer than usual. Chiappini remembered Smitty always said he wasn’t going to die around strangers.

“(Smitty) always said he was going to die here, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t do it,” Chiappini said. “He was a hard-headed old man and such a cool guy. I could write a chapter about this man.”

Another relic of Old Florida was Father Yerkes, a traveling priest, who would patron Chiappini’s during his visits. He taught children how to drive his Ford Model-T between sermons across Northeast Florida.

“My daddy (Francis Chiappini) thought the world of him,” Chiappini said.

Black customers had to enter the store from the back prior to integration. Chiappini recalled a black woman who continued to use the back entrance to the store well into the 1970s.

“She was so used to the back entrance. This is the sweetest lady you were ever going to meet. I remember the first day she walked through those front doors,” Chiappini said. “She stood in the doorway and looked around. It was a real eye-opener for me because I didn’t know what some people had to deal with.”

It’s difficult to assess what the departure of Chiappini’s will mean to the area. Mary Ordini compared the store to an information booth or a clubhouse.

“Everybody comes here to hang out with your friends or watch the bands in the pole barn. This is the place. We don’t want it to go away,” Ordini said. “Whatever you need, someone was always willing to help you.”

Marc Borkan said at larger chain stores, social interaction was kept to a minimum. He said Chiappini’s was aptly situated for a variety of people since it’s near the corners of four counties.

“Hopefully, someone will take up the gauntlet,” Borkan said.

A microbrewery was a preferred replacement on the property, Chiappini said, since the store had a license for customers to drink outdoors. He laughed and pointed to the customers at the counter.

“I’ll be smiling when I’m on that side,” Chiappini said.

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment