Using Newspapers and City Directories to Track Dates and Locations: Bell’s Food Stores

As discussed in the fourth edition of the Heritage Room’s Tuesday Tutorials, city directories can be a valuable resource in historical research. Many researchers turn to a city directory to find the address of an individual, perhaps an ancestor. Newspapers, meanwhile, are used to find an obituary or an article about that ancestor. While they are usually not the researcher’s initial destination, another feature of city directories and newspapers can be useful in multiple ways: advertisements. Not only do advertisements at times provide much of the funding that keeps directories and newspapers in operation, but, decades later, they seem less annoying or distracting, more like welcome glimpses into a past time and place. Either way, printed advertisements, unlike like those found on television and YouTube, do not yell at you.

For local historians, advertisements are perhaps most helpful in determining the opening and closing dates of businesses. And, in the case of businesses that moved or had multiple stores, the different locations as well. A fine example of this here in Athens, Georgia, are the Bell’s Food Stores. Since 2005, when their store on the east side of town closed, Bell’s has been a regional chain, found in Athens, Watkinsville, Jefferson, Lexington, and Lincolnton. There were also locations in Hartwell and Gainesville that did not last. But from its origins until the 1980s (when these non-Athens stores started popping up) Bell’s was a local chain. At its Athenian peak, it had four stores in town, as longtime residents undoubtedly remember: on Prince Avenue, near downtown, in a building that later housed the Potter’s House Thrift Store; in Five Points, at the same spot where Earth Fare operated 1999-2020 (and perhaps will soon again, under new ownership); the current Athens location on Hawthorne Avenue on the west side; and the aforementioned east-side spot, in a shopping center that was torn down to make way for the Lowe’s currently on that site.

When did these locations open? How did we go from four Bell’s stores to only one? Were there other locations besides those four? The official Bell’s website provides some historical background, even as some of the dates are incorrect or only approximate. Researchers, though, are often looking for information about businesses that are no longer extant and largely forgotten. In addition, they want to find historical data from at least two different sources, because to do so confirms, at least to a greater extent if not absolutely, the accuracy of information already found. And because, as we hope you’ll conclude when reading this long-ish post, the research process, though convoluted at times, can be fun too.

A thorough history that expands upon and clarifies the information found in the history at the Bell’s website would be a large project requiring access to the full gamut of materials available in the Heritage Room, not to mention Bell’s company records. With the library building currently closed, we instead provide a snapshot of the research process, focusing on the downtown and Five Points locations.

First, the following advertisement, found in the 1954 Athens City Directory, published by Nelsons’ Baldwin Directory Co., confirms that the long-standing downtown Bell’s was located in a building at the northern corner of Washington Street and Pulaski Street, later occupied for many years by Sunshine Cycles. And it confirms that a second location had opened in Five Points.

Now we briefly turn away from advertisements, noting the first page of an extensive cover article about natural-foods grocers in an issue of Flagpole, dated 10 February 1999, which provides some crucial information: the Five Points location suffered a fire in August, 1997, paving the way for Earth Fare to move into the location. This article also notes that the new grocer planned to open later that year.

An advertisement from an issue of Flagpole, dated 3 November 1999, shown below seems to confirm that the store had opened.

As seen here and in the first image, ads indicate the obvious fact that a business is open and usually provide postal addresses. City directories can be doubly useful in this way, as the business listing in the directory, plus an advertisement that the business placed in the directory, both confirm an address. However, the first ad, like another found in an issue of the Red and Black, only notes that the Five Points Bell’s was to be found on Lumpkin Street.

In an Atlanta publication (originally based in Augusta), the Southern Israelite, dated 11 September 1953, we find a Bell’s ad that does give the address: sure enough, it is 1689, the same as Earth Fare. Perhaps the Bell’s staff at the time knew that Athenians could find their way around Five Points, but other Georgians would need some help!

The Red and Black ad noted above is next; it comes from an issue dated 23 September 1965. While not providing an address, the ad confirms that the east-side store was open and that a location on Prince Avenue was near the General Hospital, what we now call Athens Regional. This would appear to confirm what the Bell’s official website tells us: at some point, the downtown location closed, replaced by this store next to the hospital, which itself was replaced by the future-Potter’s-House location at Prince and Barber Street. Alas, we don’t have an address!

The 1956 city directory comes to our rescue. 1237 Prince Avenue: this address, when looked up on our 21st-century fancy toys, puts us in a parking lot at the southwest corner of Talmadge Drive and Prince. Both the store and the building are lost to history.

To conclude, let’s connect some of the these “dots” and recall that the 1954 city directory had listed a Bell’s at 294 West Washington. Apparently, sometime between the publication of that directory and the 1956 directory, the move took place. We should note here that the Bell’s website claims the Prince-Talmadge store opened in 1957. Again, without access to a fuller run of city directories available at either the Heritage Room or the University of Georgia Libraries, or microfilm copies of the Athens Banner-Herald for these years, we cannot attempt to solve this particular puzzle. Nonetheless, using sources found entirely online at the Digital Library of Georgia, themselves scanned copies of printed publications from several institutions throughout the state, we have disclosed quite a bit of history. A future post at this blog, hopefully later this year, will uncover more of the history of Bell’s Food Stores. In the coming weeks, this series of articles will continue using online directories and newspapers to lay out chronologies of Athens businesses and culture.

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