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Harris Blackwood: Saul’s among last of a dying breed of local retailers
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Lorry Schrage and dog Mika go for a walk around the square in downtown Gainesville Friday, Feb, 2, 2018. Schrage is closing his longtime clothing store Saul's on the square. - photo by Scott Rogers

Just as Gainesville was emerging from both the Great Depression and the great tornado, Bill and Gussie Schrage embarked on a journey that would outlive both of them.

A Jewish couple, the Schrages had escaped from Germany as Hitler was seeking domination of Europe. They decided to settle in a town where most folks were either Baptists or Methodists. The nearest synagogue was 50 miles away in Atlanta.

Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

Their store, Saul’s, was primary a ladies specialty shop that also carried a full line of children’s shoes. Many older baby boomers remember stepping into the big machine where X-ray vision could determine if there was room enough in their new shoes.

The chain stores, Belk, J.C. Penney and Woolworth, have been gone so long that few visitors today have first-hand knowledge of their existence.

At one time, every pharmacy in Gainesville was located on the square. The drug stores, where the pharmacist was often called “doctor” or “doc,” also featured a soda fountain where a dime would buy not one but two scoops of ice cream.

There were other clothing retailers, like Milner’s and the Frierson-McEver Co., where many a North Georgia boy began the transition to manhood with the purchase of his first suit with unhemmed pants that would be tailored just for him.

Just a few weeks ago, the doors of Gem Jewelry closed for the last time. Not only did it carry a full selection of watches and jewelry, but also fine china and crystal.

A Saturday in the 1950s or ’60s brought a flurry of activity to the center of town. Stores were bustling with shoppers and the trip to town was as much a part of life as church and Sunday school the next day.

Slowly and methodically, stores that were once the pillars of downtown began to close. The retail shopping district had moved to shopping centers like Sherwood Plaza and Lakeshore Mall, one of the first enclosed malls in a town the size of Gainesville.

Unlike many downtowns, the Gainesville square has found new life with a different set of retailers and a wide array of restaurants and entertainment venues.

But there is something bittersweet about losing that last anchor from the era where Gainesville emerged as a thriving center for business, services and medical care.

In a column about 10 years ago, I noted that the great theologian, Dr. William L. Coates of First Baptist Church had declared Lorry and Sherrie Schrage to be “honorary Baptists.” I then asked, tongue in cheek, that if the Schrages were now Baptists, shouldn’t they change the name to “Paul’s?” Lorry was good natured about my New Testament humor and said that a number of customers came in and asked how they should write their checks.

I’m not sure how Baptist the Schrages are, but they are Gainesvillians to the core. Lorry and Sherrie followed the lead of Bill and Gussie and their roots in this community are as deep as Lake Lanier.

Unlike chains that buy clothing items by the dozen, the owners of Saul’s knew their customers personally and purchased items with them in mind. It happened that way for 79 years and we will not likely see that kind of personalized merchandising again.

A new venue will appear at the corner of Main and Washington in the future, but it will truly never be the same.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page .

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