Relative newcomers to Hall County, and even longtime residents whose memory might be fuzzy, are curious about “what used to be” in Gainesville’s downtown.
That is especially so in the recent rejuvenation of businesses around the square and streets leading off it.
While downtown has had its ups and downs over the years, perhaps the 1950s were one of its prime periods. Business was brisk with little competition from outside.
Around the square itself, only two businesses that thrived in that era remain today. Gem Jewelry, owned by the Orenstein family, remains in its location on the east side at 111 Bradford St. It opened in 1936 a few months after the tornado at 18 East Washington St. across from the Jackson Building. After founder Mose Eplan died, Gem moved to 113 West Spring St. in 1946 next door to a competitor, Mintz Jewelers.
Eplan’s grandchildren, Linda Orenstein and Temme Schooler, daughters of longtime owner Marvin Orenstein, are keeping the tradition alive. Their father died in 2012.
Said Linda Orenstein: “You had to be on the square back then. If you weren’t on the square, you weren’t in business.”
Saul’s is celebrating its 75th year on the square. Founded in 1939 on Washington Street where Atlas Pizza is today, Saul’s moved across the square to Spring Street in 1945, and has been at the corner of Washington and Main since 1976. Sherrie and Lorry Schrage, son of founders Gussie and Bill Schrage, continue to operate the clothing store.
Martin Furniture Co. is a longtime mainstay just off the square on Bradford Street. Founded by Cliff Martin in 1945, his son Ben and daughter Margaret Martin Henson continue the business with Ben’s wife Courtney and other longtime employees in the same building since it opened, though it expanded into adjacent space and upstairs.
The Collegiate Grill, under various owners over the years, thrives in its original location on South Main between West Spring and East Broad streets.
Hunt Towers, the former Dixie-Hunt Hotel, anchors one corner of the square. Besides the hotel, the building also housed Dixie Drug, Brogdon-Hooper Barber Shop and the Little New Yorker Shop in the 1950s.
Penney’s occupied the opposite corner of Main and Spring where Main Street Market is today. On up Main toward where Saul’s is today were Diana Shops, Singer Sewing Machine, First Federal Savings and Loan, Millner’s department store, where Frames You-Nique is today, and McLellan’s dime store.
Gallant-Belk was one of the more prosperous businesses on the square, holding down the corner of Spring and Bradford streets. What is now a parking lot, often referred to as the “Belk lot,” also was the home to such businesses on Spring as Kenwin Shop, Saul’s, Whatley’s Pharmacy, Gem Jewelry, Mintz Jewelry, Whitfield’s women’s clothing and Debbie Shop.
In the 1950s, on the east side of the square on Bradford between Spring and Washington streets were Piedmont Drug at the corner of Washington and Bradford, J.C. Morrison optometrist, Hulsey’s Men’s Store, The Leader men’s store, The Hub clothing, Southern Shoe Store and the Gainesville National Bank building, which also housed the Dunlap law firm, lawyers Bill Gignilliat, Pinckney Whelchel, Howard Overby and Ernest Smith.
Avocado Restaurant and the Hair Shack, along with Gem Jewelry, are on that side of the square today.
The north side of the square, Washington Street between Bradford and Main, included the Imperial Pharmacy, whose building today includes law offices and a florist. Others on that stretch were the popular and cozy Book Shop, friendly Frierson-McEver men’s store, Roses 5 & 10, E.E. Kimbrough insurance upstairs, the Smart Shop women’s clothing, Masons and Eastern Star upstairs and Estes department store. Inman Perk and Atlas Pizza are popular spots in that area today.
Princeton Hotel and coffee shop was the other prominent corner of the square at Main and Washington. Dress Up now occupies that space.
The Ritz, Royal and State theaters were on streets leading to the square, as were such businesses as Ronald’s, Western Auto, J. Wendell Lancaster Jewelry, Hoyt Ledford’s Jewelry, Kleckley’s sporting goods, Hardy’s Studio, the Gainesville News, WDUN radio, Polly’s Beauty Shop, Piggly Wiggly, Colonial Stores, Bee Hive Market, the Cake Box, the Little Shop, Courtney’s Jewelers, Palmour Hardware, Nickel Back Shoes, Pete Tankersley and Lee Crowe’s pool rooms
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, Ga. 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.