The east side of Gainesville’s downtown square in the 1950s was dominated by clothing stores, most of them what you would consider discount shops today.
All in a row facing Bradford Street were Hulsey’s, 107 Bradford, run by Jeff and Jack Hulsey; The Leader, 109; The Hub, 111, operated by J.H. Goldstein; and Jake Sacks, 113. In addition, Southern Shoe Store was at 115 Bradford. To get your bearings, Gem Jewelry Co. today is at 111 and Avocado Restaurant at 109 Bradford on the square.
Another discount clothing store was just south of the square on Bradford, L.B. Adams, run by a flamboyant entrepreneur who attracted hundreds of customers through boisterous advertising on radio and in newspapers.
Jake Sacks had been there since 1902, the owner recalling in later years that the streets around the square were still dirt, and the city had only 5,000 people.
Agnes Shockley’s father, Clarence “Skeet” Sosebee, worked at Jake Sacks as a sales clerk for 25 years. Ray Hemphill was the store’s manager for a while. Shockley and her sister, Mary Nell Smallwood, would help out at the store on weekends while in high school and spent many hours otherwise in the place where their father was a familiar figure. She can still visualize the layout of the store and remembers overalls were a big seller, as well as hats with Jake Sacks’ own label.
Jake Sacks’ son-in-law, B.D. Cohen, succeeded him in operating the store. An Atlantan, he commuted to Gainesville every day and continued the store’s tradition of friendly customer service.
But the traffic-filled commute, parking problems around the square and shopping centers locating away from downtown finally did in Jake Sacks at the end of 1971.
Cohen today would see a quite different downtown from what he left when Jake Sacks closed its doors to create yet another empty storefront. In an interview with The Times as the store was closing, Cohen lamented the lack of parking.
“Human nature is funny,” he said at the time. “People will go to a shopping center and walk from their cars to the stores and not think anything about it.” But walking that same distance from off the downtown square is different for some reason, he said. People want their downtown parking to be as close as possible to the stores.
At that time, the situation resulted in drivers constantly circling the square until a space would come open.
Cohen’s unpopular solution to the parking problem would have been building a multistory parking garage in the middle of the square. He suggested providing public restrooms in the parking complex. That idea never got off the ground, of course, because people were opposed to eliminating what little green space there was in downtown, not to mention that it would have resulted in relocating “Old Joe,” the Confederate statue.
Cohen would be elated at the parking situation today. Not one, but two parking garages are in the downtown area. Spaces continue to be available in front of businesses as well as around the downtown square itself, although on busier days they are at a premium.
The mix of businesses is somewhat different from when Jack Sacks and other similar stores were at their prime. There are fewer empty store fronts, and pedestrians ply the sidewalks on some days almost as they did in downtown’s heyday.
Cohen took a look back when he closed Jake Sacks more than 40 years ago. “I can remember a time when on a Saturday the sidewalks would be so full, you could hardly walk,” he said.
Agnes Shockley and Mary Nell Smallwood’s mother, Thelma Sosebee, wrote a personal column from the Sugar Hill community in local newspapers for many years.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.