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Family’s lives rotated around a 5-and-dime

POSTED: April 21, 2013 1:00 a.m.

You don’t see many 5-and-10-cent stores anymore like McLellan’s, which was such an anchor in downtown Gainesville over several decades.

McLellan’s was perhaps the most prominent and prosperous five-and-dime in Gainesville. It stood on the corner of Main and Washington, the present location of Saul’s.

Sisters Laurie Stamsen and Christie Smith, along with their brothers Chris Howard and Dr. Kit Howard, practically grew up in McLellan’s during downtown’s heyday when the square was the most vibrant retail center in Northeast Georgia. Their father, Chris Howard, was manager from 1950 until he retired in 1971. The family’s lives revolved around the store.

The sisters have treasured memories of McLellan’s, which featured everything from tiny trinkets, costume jewelry, notions to clothing, radios, luggage and toys. It had a bakery and popular soda fountain. You could buy parakeets two for 99 cents. The store became so successful it expanded into the Hosch Building just across Washington Street. The store remodeled and held a grand opening ribbon cutting July 8, 1955.

The toy department was especially expansive and exciting, the sisters remember, especially at Christmas when Santa Claus’s potential gifts would be stacked almost floor to ceiling. Poinsettias would line the sidewalk outside the front of the store.

Before Easter, the girls would help in an assembly line upstairs to put together baskets for the bunny to deliver. Baby chicks and lilies would be displayed out front.

A special feature of the store was an oversized grand popcorn machine just as you walked in the front door. “We got to make popcorn,” Laurie said. “It was a big deal.”

The girls would help out during busy times, even running the cash register as teenagers.

“On Saturdays, that place was packed,” Laurie recalled. “We would make like $2 a day,” said Christie.

The soda fountain was a big attraction, serving everything from coffee and tea for a nickel to hamburgers or a banana split for a quarter. Bunches of bananas hung high behind the counter. Limeade was squeezed from fresh limes. Ice cream sodas were just 20 cents. It was a hangout for local police, many of whom came early for breakfast.

Before desegregation, black customers weren’t allowed to sit at the lunch counter, but Chris Howard would serve them from one end, Christie Smith said.

The store was typical of those downtown in the 1950s. Fans twirled from the high, tin-tiled ceilings above oiled wood floors. Offices were upstairs, along with a stock room and break room for employees. Stores around the square closed Wednesday afternoons.

The family lived on Green Street Place in the house now occupied by Dr. Ed Shannon’s office. They would walk to the store just before closing time, be treated at the soda fountain, then everybody would ride home together. Sometimes after closing, while waiting on their father the girls would raid the large, tempting candy counter -- a memorable adventure.

When their father would work long hours during Christmas, they’d meet him for a dinner break. On Saturdays, the girls remembered always sitting in a circular booth at the Princeton Hotel across from the store and eating dinner with the whole family. On Sundays, the Howards would eat fried chicken at the Georgianna Restaurant or Nicholson’s.

“Inventory time in January was a nightmare for Daddy,” Laurie said. Long before electronic scanning devices, he had to count manually every item in the store. Their mother, Norma, would work day and night to help. She would call home to tell the children she had ordered chicken salad to be delivered from Imperial Pharmacy.

Mrs. Howard also would order groceries delivered from Green’s Grocery, which still operates on Ronnie Green Parkway. A special treat Saturday afternoons was ice cream.

Many employees worked at McLellan’s for years, including Bill Doughtry, assistant manager, O’Dean Mooney, cashier Carolyn Chandler and a Mrs. O’Kelley.

Howard retired in 1971, and McLellan’s closed a few years later. The Schrage family bought the building and moved Saul’s from Spring Street on the square to its present location in 1976.

The Howard sisters lived away from Gainesville for many years before moving back several years ago. They recall all their friends lived nearby in their neighborhood when families occupied the Green Street homes. “It was a great place to grow up,” they said.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.


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