Gainesville's downtown square seems to glow more warmly this Christmas season than anytime in recent memory.
Before malls, outlets and strip shopping centers proliferated, the square bustled as the place to shop, work, play, eat, see friends and be seen.
In the 1950s during Christmas, sidewalks were crowded, and parking places were at a premium.
The square at the time was anchored by Gallant-Belk on the corner of Spring and Bradford, where a parking lot now exists. J.C. Penney was on the corner of Spring and Main, Estes department store at the corner of Washington and Main. The Princeton and Dixie-Hunt hotels occupied other corners, and the quaint old Wheeler Hotel was where Hall County Library is today.
Drug stores abounded, including Imperial, Whatley's, Dixie, Ledford's and Piedmont. Some were as popular for refreshments as they were for dispensing medicine. Doc Perry Whatley's daughters, Lavinia and Linda, remember the soda fountain serving spoon burgers, Coke floats, walk-away sundaes and lemon sours. Coffee clubs kept many of their booths filled during morning and afternoon breaks.
Saul's remains on the square, though in a different location. It was where children got a thrill looking at their feet through Bill Schrage's X-ray machine. Among many other shops were the Little New Yorker, the Little Shop, Smart Shop, Whitfield's, Ronald's, Kenwin, Debbie and Diana. Hats were fashionable enough to support two hat shops, Mrs. "Hat" Harrison's and Gigi's.
The east side of the square featured Hulsey's men's store, The Hub, Jake Sacks and Gainesville National Bank. The Leader and Paul's were among other downtown clothing stores.
You could buy hardware at Howell, Goforth's, Palmour and Tanner's and sporting goods from Kleckley's. Furniture was available from downtown stalwart Pilgrim-Estes, Mather, Reeves, W.E. Hood or Martin Furniture Co., which continues a family fixture just off the square on Bradford Street.
L.B. Adams and Covitz hawked bargain apparel. The Book Shop and Ragland's were popular places especially at Christmas for books, office supplies and gifts. You could buy Christmas dinner fixin's at Piggly-Wiggly, Colonial Stores, Red Grocery, Reid's and Bee Hive Market, all near the square.
Gem Jewelry and the Orenstein family persevere on the square today, but Courtney's and Mintz also prospered back then.
Today you have dollar stores. Back then you had dime stores such as McLellan's, Rose's and Frank's on or just off the square. The Royal, Ritz and State theaters provided entertainment along with Pete Tankersley's and Lee Crowe's pool rooms, as well as a bowling alley. The Browns and the Sewells kept the Collegiate Grill humming.
Christmas hadn't come until you walked the creaking wooden floors of Frierson-McEver men's store, greeted by C.R. "Red" Frierson and his son, Charlie. The store had a unique feel and aroma of its own, especially around Christmas.
Likewise, a trip to Millner's to watch the oscillating St. Nick in the window became a seasonal ritual for parents and their children.
Julian Franklin, who now lives in Highlands, N.C., worked with the rest of his family at Gallant-Belk during Christmas. His father, C.R. Franklin, was manager. Julian and brother Joe assembled toys on the third floor, which was dubbed "Toyland" and open only at Christmas.
They stocked shelves as early as September getting ready for the big shopping season. Bob Schwab of WGGA radio would read letters to Santa live from Gallant-Belk's Toyland, then greet children in his Santa suit outside. Julian's mother, Dodie, was a cashier, and his sisters, Joyce and Jo Ann, sometimes sang carols as they wrapped gifts.
Despite the Christmas crush, the Franklins were immersed in church and community activities, especially music, and C.R. would repair broken toys to be distributed by the Salvation Army. It was an overwhelming but fulfilling time for the family.
Downtown Gainesville was ground zero at Christmas because just about everything you needed was nearby: barbers, bakeries, dry cleaners, insurance agents, lawyers, beauty shops, florists, restaurants, gas stations, banks, car dealers, auto supply stores and numerous other businesses.
Though its makeup is different today, the square's renaissance hints of the bygone era, cars circling for the best parking places, bundled-up shoppers and diners scurrying about, and especially the twinkling lights that maintain the downtown tradition.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville 30501; phone (770) 532-2326; His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.