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Johnny Vardeman: Dixie City was discount pioneer before big box stores
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Before there was a Wal-Mart, before there was a Kmart, before all the Dollar-type discount stores, there was Gainesville’s Dixie City, from which sprang a chain of Liquidation Marts or L-Marts.

Gainesville was a pioneer in the discount department store wave. Dixie City was the first such discount store in the Southeast.

Much fanfare accompanied the opening of Dixie City on what was then West Broad Street, now Jesse Jewell Parkway, in November 1961. Bill and Fran Grooh were the founders, and Julian Bloodworth, former manager of JCPenney’s downtown store for 31 years, was its first manager. Adger Whitfield, who had operated Whitfield’s on the downtown square for a quarter century, was office manager.

Verne Sayre of Cake Box bakery fame even got in on the act, operating a snack bar inside the store.

Mayor Milton Hardy and Chamber of Commerce president Edd Travis headlined the ribbon-cutting ceremony on opening day.

Dixie City was a giant of a store, the largest in Gainesville at the time, 28,000 square feet costing $300,000 to build. The Groohs leased the building from Terry Inc., an Athens developer.

J&J Foods has operated in the former Dixie City space since two years after Dixie City closed in the mid-1970s. It also has a store on Limestone Parkway in Gainesville.

At the time people wondered if Dixie City would succeed being “so far out of town,” said Richard Smith, who worked as a department manager, buyer and vice president for 13 years.

Smith left the store to open his own discount stores. His first L-Mart (Liquidation Mart) was in Clarkesville in 1974. He opened a Gainesville store in the spring of 1975, and eventually 18 of them throughout Georgia. He retired eight years ago and lives in Gainesville.

The Wal-Marts and Kmarts came shortly after Dixie City opened, but Smith said the first Wal-Mart on Browns Bridge Road wasn’t direct competition and didn’t affect their business that much, if any.

Not long after Dixie City opened, Gibson’s, which had more than 500 discount stores nationwide, opened on Thompson Bridge Road in 1962. It bought Mason’s on Browns Bridge Road in 1979, and the store names changed to Big G. It also had a store in Athens, and opened in Cleveland in 1986. All the stores had closed by the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Family Dollar, a smaller variety discount store, opened in the Gene Tyner Shopping Center on Atlanta Highway in 1969, and thousands of them, along with Dollar General and Dollar Tree remain familiar fixtures all over the country.

Myles Godfrey, a retired Winder newspaper publisher who handled Dixie City’s advertising when he worked at The Times in Gainesville, noted that other discount stores struggled or closed. Some of those included Rich’s Richway, JCPenney’s Treasure Island and Sky City, a chain based in Asheville, N.C., with stores in this area. Sky City executives came to Gainesville to observe Dixie City and how it went about its business.

Bloodworth worked with Godfrey in The Times’ advertising department after he retired from Penney’s. Bloodworth was leaving to join Dixie City, and Godfrey decided the same day to leave also with no plans for future employment. But his bosses persuaded him to stay, launching for him a 50-year career in newspaper advertising with Dixie City his first account.

Godfrey said of Dixie City owner Bill Grooh: “He was a true pioneer in what became the most popular form of retailing in the world — discounters like Wal-Mart and others ... I have no doubt Bill was at least as smart as Sam Walton (founder of Wal-Mart.)” Had he been able to persist with his concept, Grooh could have developed a similar chain of discount stores, Godfrey said.

While Dixie City itself is just a memory, there remains Dixie City Pharmacy, which opened next door Oct. 1, 1965. Its present owner is Eddie Mimbs, who has been with the pharmacy since Sept. 11, 1970.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.