Three Businesses, Two Buildings: Bell’s, the 40 Watt Club, and the Potter’s House, 1989-1991

On November 4, 1989, the Bell’s grocery store on Prince Avenue closed. Previously home to a Kroger, Bell’s had occupied the building since 1976. The closure marked the end of an era, when major grocery stores, as well as the largest department stores and other major chains, were often located downtown or very close to downtown. It also connects to moves made by two other Athens institutions, the Potter’s House Thrift Store and the 40 Watt Club. The former, which these days operates under a different name (the Atlanta Mission Athens Thrift Store, found at the Homewood Village Shopping Center), in 1989 was located at 285 West Washington Street. The next year, it would move to the former Bell’s location, while the 40 Watt Club, then located at 256 West Clayton Street, would move into the vacated Potter’s House spot.

In tracking these changes via microfilmed and digitized old newspapers, striking differences in the research process emerge. A internationally-known music venue like the 40 Watt Club not only has its history well documented in the local press—one of its owners working at the still-young weekly newspaper Flagpole—but is also discussed in numerous histories either covering the Athens music scene or broader related topics. A grocery store, as we saw in our first article about the Bell’s chain, likely has several advertisements running in local newspapers, leaving behind a clear trail for researchers to follow, supplemented by city directories and perhaps newspaper articles. Indeed, in our case here, an article about the Prince Avenue Bell’s closing, published in the Athens Observer on November 16, was written by one of Athens’ leading journalists at the time, Conoly Hester. But a thrift store run by a non-profit organization, while it may be more stable compared to commercial enterprises, can be strangely silent in the public record, with few articles and advertisements found in newspapers and magazines. The researcher would need to turn to the organization itself, hoping that extensive records have been maintained.

Hester’s article, seen above and below, notes Athenians’ nickname for the Prince Avenue Bell’s. “Ghetto Bell’s” may seem crude, even offensive, but anecdotal evidence suggests that, despite the negative impressions reported by Hester, many neighborhood residents applied the term with affection. It even became the name of local songster Vic Chesnutt’s publishing company. In 2005, Chesnutt explained why he chose the name in an article in No Depression magazine. The discussion came up there because that year Chesnutt also used the name for his new album. Ghetto Bells featured Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks among other guests, serving as quite an illustrious final act, however obliquely, for a grocery store that had been closed more than 15 years.

Digging further into Hester’s article, Athenians will not be surprised, though they may be disappointed, to find that certain socioeconomic concerns that the city faces today were present in 1989. The Prince Avenue Bell’s was small, with fewer of the features we expect from a modern “supermarket,” creating a stark divide between what was available to residents living near downtown compared to what was available at comparable businesses located at shopping areas farther out, whether they be somewhat close, like Alps Road, or not, like Gaines School Road and the area around Georgia Square Mall. As explained by local residents quoted by Hester, transportation to such locations for those lacking a personal automobile could prove difficult. In coming years, the only grocers that opened in or near downtown, namely Daily Groceries, Phoenix, and later Carniceria Costa de Jalisco, were even smaller than the Prince Avenue Bell’s.

While we know an exact date the Prince Avenue Bell’s shut its doors from the Observer article, even a rough date for when Potter’s House moved is harder to pin down. The Hill-Donnelly Cross Reference Directory published in February 1990 still had Bell’s on Prince and the thrift store on Washington. Next year’s edition, also published in February, noted the move, with Potter’s House now listed at both 434 and 450 Prince Avenue. Southern Bell telephone directories published in December 1989 and December 1990 mark the same change, definitely suggesting that the thrift store was up and running at its new spot at some point in 1990.

In the August 8, 1990, issue of Flagpole, editor Jared Bailey revealed that he and Barrie Buck, who co-owned the nightclub at the time were planning to move the 40 Watt into the building on Washington Street that housed the Potter’s House. According to Bailey, the Potter’s House would move to a new, to-be-determined location, suggesting that at the time this issue went to press the thrift store was still doing business on Washington. (Under this article, by the way, is an ad for another thrift store, Go Clothing, that would later move to 195 Prince Avenue, the site of its nightclub successor namesake, Go Bar.)

The Red and Black picked up the story about a month later, in their September 18 issue. This piece provides a photograph of the front entrance of the Clayton Street version of the 40 Watt, later home to the Caledonia Lounge. The author refers to the “Potter’s House building” and discusses the 40 Watt’s plans for renovating the space, suggesting that perhaps the thrift store had moved.

A clearer indication of an exact date comes from advertisements run by the Sunshine Cycle Shop, which by chance moved into the building across the street from 285 West Washington during this same period. These Flagpole ads, an example of which from November 28 is provided here, say that the new location is across from the “Old Potter’s House,” again suggesting that the thrift store had switched locations. This new home for Sunshine fits into our story in a different way, as the building-address (294 West Washington) is none other than the original location of the Bell’s that later moved to Talmadge Drive, near the hospital, and then moved to Prince Avenue.

In September 25, 1991, an edition of William Orten Carlton’s regular column in the Flagpole (copied below) mentions that there had been two Potter’s House stores in Athens, combined into one at the new location. Using the Johnson city directories found in the Heritage Room, we find that the 1987 edition did indeed list a Potter’s House at 476 North Avenue as well as a “Clothing Outlet” next door at 478. These storefronts were at the Athens Plaza shopping center. The 1988 edition, however, does not include these locations. Going in the other chronological direction to older city directories, we find that the Potter’s House had been on North Avenue for only a brief time; the second store having previously been located at 3500 Jefferson Road.

Bell’s had only occupied the 434 Prince address, though as Hester’s article noted plans had been made to enlarge the store before it instead closed. As it turned out, the thrift store would make use of a larger space for several years, though later the Episcopal Thrift House would move into 450 Prince. Several years down the line, the Potter’s House began running ads in the Red and Black, as seen below, from the October 2, 2002, issue. Sometime around the start of 2010, the store changed its name.

In the March 20, 1991, Flagpole, readers finally learned the 40 Watt’s reopening date. Renovations of the former Potter’s House space had been extensive and unsurprisingly brought delays. Local music legends Pylon were to headline the first night. As we have learned from our articles here using newspaper clippings to tell the story of the Athens music scene, Pylon also played the first night of the reopened Georgia Theatre less than two years prior.

The Athens Observer article below, part of Don Nelson’s regular “Business Observer” column, provides more details about the new 40 Watt, and provides rare information about the two shops that were opening in the storefronts in front of the new venue: Funkadelia and Rocket Head. The former was replaced by the tattoo shop Pain and Wonder, which still operates today, while the latter morphed into Low Yo Yo Stuff Records, which stayed in the tiny space until 2006 and later returned to West Washington Street, only a few storefronts eastward.

Perhaps designating the opening date of the new 40 Watt as April Fools’ Day wasn’t the best idea. There was another final delay. The Red and Black on April 2 updated readers.

The official opening Pylon performance ended up taking place on April 4, as seen here in the venue’s concert listings, published in the April 3 Flagpole. From this list of musical acts, we see that the West Washington version of the 40 Watt Club was poised to stake a position in the Nineties similar to that of the Last Resort in the Seventies and the Uptown Lounge in the Eighties, as touring ensembles like Firehose, Uncle Tupelo, and the Jesus Lizard shared the stage with familiar locals like the Flat Duo Jets, Five-Eight, and Porn Orchard. The ad even slips in a silly joke: note the “return engagement” of “Call,” the bane of all concert listings.

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