It was 1936, still in the thick of the Great Depression, when Mose Eplan left Atlanta for the Gainesville square and never looked back.
But like the hands on one of the fine watches sold at Gem Jewelry, the store he founded, time is ticking down for the downtown landmark.
Eplan’s granddaughters, sisters Linda Orenstein and Temme Orenstein Schooler, are working to permanently close the doors at the store at 111 Bradford St. SE on Dec. 30.
“We’ve been tossing this (decision) around since my father (Marvin Orenstein) died,” Orenstein said in an interview last week at the store.
Hurrying up the decision was health issues.
“This summer, I had two hip surgeries and Temme had (the business) all on her own,” Orenstein said. “... So, we decided let’s just close it up. We were going to do it earlier but decided to close (after) Christmas. People were going to be buying anyway.”
The sisters and store employees were keeping busy last week. As they opened the business one chilly morning, customers had packed the entrance eager to take advantage of slashed prices.
“I’m sad to see them closing,” said Gainesville resident Elizabeth Mullins as she shopped for a Gorham sterling silver Christmas ornament. “They’ve been faithful to the community for such a long time.”
As one of downtown’s oldest businesses, Gem Jewelry first opened in a spot off Washington Street across from the Jackson Building.
Eplan arrived in Gainesville at the behest of fellow business owners on the square.
“He knew those people from Atlanta, and they kept telling him, ‘After the tornado (of 1936), the government has come in here and people are working,’” Orenstein said.
But business wasn’t always humming.
“If it was a slow day and he wasn’t doing any business, (Eplan) would go two blocks down the street and play with the guys at Gainesville High,” Orenstein said. “Golf was his favorite, but he loved all sports.”
Following the death of his father-in-law in the mid-1940s, Marvin Orenstein approached Gainesville High School requesting to set up an award in his memory.
Orenstein’s idea was to present a player, selected by coaches, with a brand-new watch. And not a cheap one, but a timepiece usually worth $300 to $400.
“It’s not just a watch,” Orenstein said in a 2011 interview with The Times. “It’s something they can be proud to wear.”
Orenstein, who was faithful to attend GHS football awards banquets, died in 2012.
The sisters have been lifelong workers at the store, where memories of their father are strong.
“He ran this business. He allowed us to work for him,” Linda Orenstein said with a laugh. “We did the buying and selling, and we trimmed the windows, but he ... handled all the bookkeeping and paying all the bills. Any major decisions, they were his.”
After Eplan’s death, Gem Jewelry moved from Washington Street to West Spring St. It has been at the Bradford location since 1956.
Over the years, Gem Jewelry also operated stores at Sherwood Plaza off South Enota Drive and Lakeshore Mall off Pearl Nix Parkway.
The work, while fulfilling, had gotten more challenging over the years, Orenstein said.
“The companies we deal with are no longer the companies we dealt with,” she said.
“As the original people are retiring or passing away, a younger generation takes over with a different philosophy. They are MBAs and they don’t know anything about customer service — they just know the bottom line.
“It’s a different world, and it’s not fun anymore.”
Schooler said leaving “is a bittersweet kind of thing.”
“It’s all I’ve ever done my whole life,” she said. “As soon as you could look over a counter, you were put to work. But you have to do what you think is best, and this past six or eight months has been really hard for me.”
Feeling nostalgic about the business — which even looks the throwback part, with its rows of glass counters and a centerpiece chandelier spraying light around the store — isn’t confined to just the sisters.
Customer Tina Zonnenberg of Oakwood has bought from Gem Jewelry for 21 years, back to when she and her husband were looking for an engagement ring for Zonnenberg.
“We couldn’t find anything we liked,” she said. “We came in and spoke with Mr. Orenstein and he helped us design it.”
The experience made her a loyal customer.
One of the store’s big draws is that it “reminds me of a bygone era,” Zonnenberg said. “I like coming in here better than the glassy, shiny, modern places.”
When they close the doors for the last time, the sisters’ work won’t be entirely done.
“As hard as we’re going, we’re not going to be able to sell everything,” Orenstein said.
Finding “places that want to buy what’s left” is one major task, and then “the building has got to be repaired,” she said. “There’s repair work we’ve been putting off.”
“And then, I’ll take a rest. I guess I’ll find me some volunteer job to do because I can’t sit at home.”
As for Schooler, “the first thing on my list is to take a good vacation.”
I’m sad to see them closing. They’ve been faithful to the community for such a long time.Gainesville resident Elizabeth Mullins