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Johnny Vardeman: Gainesville’s two downtown fixtures closing stirs memories
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Longtime Gainesville jewelers Gem Jewelry closed for good on Dec. 30, 2017, after 81 years in business. - photo by Scott Rogers

The pending closing of Saul’s, preceded by Gem Jewelry’s closing, on Gainesville’s downtown square isn’t just another business providing a vacant storefront.

Johnny Vardeman

No doubt with the present vibrant environment around the square, new businesses will fill those gaps.

However, these are historic moments as both stores were family-owned and operated for decades. They have been fixtures downtown through its ups and downs, through storms and nearby fires. While neither Gem nor Saul’s has been in the same location during their existence, they both have always faced the square. Saul’s occupies the corner of Main and Washington, where McLellan’s dime store once operated.

The Orenstein family ran the jewelry store, and the Schrages have kept Saul’s clothing store humming all this time.

The closings have generated considerable conversation, especially by longtime Northeast Georgians whose shopping trips most often carried them to Gainesville’s square. They also have been a trip through nostalgia for social media followers.

Memories have been unearthed of the Christmas seasons when Millner’s, a Saul’s neighbor on Main Street, displayed an oscillating Santa Claus in its window. Or when Bill Schrage used to thrill children looking at their feet through his “X-ray machine” at Saul’s. Or sitting astride the rocking horse in the store. Both of those artifacts are on display today in the store’s window.

Lorre Schrage of Saul’s said he thought he wouldn’t be sentimental over closing the curtain on the store’s long history. But longtime customers have come in, saddened that Saul’s story is coming to an end, reminiscing about his parents, Bill and Gussie Schrage, and baby shoes, one of the store’s specialties. 

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Longtime Saul's customer Susan French hugs Lorry Schrage outside of his downtown Gainesville business Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 as he takes dog Mika for a walk. Schrage's family started Saul's in downtown Gainesville in 1939. - photo by Scott Rogers

Both Gem and Saul’s at one time were on Spring Street on the square, Gem at 113 and Saul’s at 109 with Whatley’s Pharmacy in between. That is the side of the square that is a parking lot next to Brenau University’s downtown campus today and where Parkside on the Square, a residential and retail development, is supposed to rise within the next few months.

That side of the square since the stores were demolished was referred to as “the Belk lot” because Gallant-Belk was the biggest store there. It more recently is called “the fourth side of the square.”

Other stores on that side of the square have included the Kenwin Shop, Mintz Jewelers, Whitfield’s women’s clothing and the Debbie Shop women’s clothing.

That whole block and businesses behind it on Main and Bradford Street came down with the construction of what was then the Georgia Mountains Center. In the 1950s, those businesses included Polly’s Beauty Shop, Gainesville Hardware, Terrel Beauty College and Beauty Shop, WDUN radio station, Hardy’s Studio and engraving shop, Gainesville News, N.C. White photography and Western Auto. Behind Gallant-Belk at one time on South Bradford had been Piggly-Wiggly grocery store, Farmer’s Café, Goforth Hardware and H&W Cafeteria.

When Gallant-Belk opened on the square in 1934, it was considered the anchor, though JCPenney was a competitor on the west side at the corner of Main and Spring where Main Street Market is today. The 1936 tornado, which devastated downtown, killed three Gallant-Belk employees, according to one report. A different report had two people killed inside the store.

Don Carter Realty acquired “the Belk lot” in 2001.

Gallant-Belk had remained open on the square even after it opened a Belk-Gallant store in Sherwood Plaza in 1967. Belk opened its Lakeshore Mall store in 1973 and closed the Sherwood store in 1987.

Streets around Gainesville’s square weren’t paved till 1909. Merchants and citizens complained for years about the dust during dry weather and mud on rainy times. The city sprinkled the streets when dusty. It cost $42,000 to pave the streets with vitrified brick around the square and streets leading to it.

In October 1913, the square was lit up with a celebration as the first electric lights shone on what was called “the Whiteway.”

Southern Bell Telephone removed all its poles and wires on the square in March 1919.

The first street cars to run on North Georgia Electric’s lines in Gainesville were Jan, 21, 1902.

Gainesville’s first “skyscraper,” the Jackson Building, which still stands, opened in 1915.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770- 532-2326; e-mail.

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