The 1960s were a bustling time for the city, with the local cotton mill whirling out thread, and storefronts downtown full of shops. There was plenty of opportunity for young entrepreneurs like then-26-year-old Joe Lively, owner of Lively’s.
Lively was raised for the most part in Jacksonville’s mill village with his eight brothers and four sisters.
“He grew up with a very simple life,” his daughter Vickie Cooper said recently by phone from her home in Boca Raton, Fla. “But he was such a hard worker.”
Lively lived with his uncle and aunt for a time growing up, and at a young age began working at a sawmill, where his daughter said he’d come home with his young hands covered in pine rosin.
That’s also when he got his first taste of working in a grocery store. His uncle owned one, and took his nephew on for a time.
“So the grocery business was ingrained in him at that age. He uncle really taught him his work ethic,” Cooper said.
After working for the Winn Dixie grocery chain for a while, Lively found his way to Piedmont, where he raised enough money to buy a shuttered grocery store.
Fifty years later – and one relocation to its current spot on East Ladiga Street – Lively still guides his ship with steady hands. Both his grown sons, Marty and Joey, work with him in the store.
Knowing what’s important
Over the years, the labels on the foods Lively’s sells have changed, and some of the long-time employees have moved on or passed away, but not much else has changed since 1963.
If he’s been successful at all, his family says, it’s because he works hard, pays attention to detail, is respectful to his customers and treats his employees well.
“Everybody was like family to him, and still is,” Cooper said. “They’re like his children, and he takes care of them.”
Cashiers and clerks would hire on at Lively’s and stay there for years, Cooper said, but it’s not just the employees that he looks after. It’s the folks who, day in and day out, buy their groceries from him.
“I remember at holidays, at Christmas, we’d be home having our dinner and someone would call and say ‘I really need to get some milk for my babies.’ Or ‘I’m out of an ingredient for our Christmas dinner’ and he would leave us and go to the store and open it for them,” Cooper said. “He’s a great businessman, but at the same time he has a heart for people who are in need.”
That sense of respect for people was passed down to his children. Joey lively, 55, said that he makes a practice of never taking customers for granted.
“I tell them I appreciate them, because I do,” lively said. “They’re some nice folks.”
Being a small operation can be great for customer service, but it’s hard to compete with the large chains that buy food by the tonnage and can offer deep discounts. The Lively’s have weathered their share of storms, they said, but they’ve always managed to stay about the water.
“There have been many other stores than have gone under,” Marty Lively said, counting off a handful of Piedmont grocery stores that withered away in the last several decades.
A reticent owner
Lively won’t likely talk about all he’s done for people who have found themselves in desperate times, Cooper said. He’s so humble and so busy, she said, that it might even be hard to pin her father down for an interview. It was - as a matter of fact - impossible.
If Lively won’t talk about all the things, both small and large, he’s done to help people in need, one lifelong customer and former employee will at least give a hint.
Like a lot of local college students, Michael Ingram said he’d worked at Lively’s while he was in school.
“One of the things that sticks out to me from my time spent working at Lively’s,” Ingram wrote in an email to The Star, “is how generous the Lively family is to the people of our community.”
He’s managed to build a solid business, and he’s got family ready to take over, so why doesn’t Lively just retire, ride horses and fish and do all the things he can’t do inside a grocery store?
Cooper said it’s because the store is “his baby.”
“He feels very tied to the people that are there and concerned for their well-being,” she said. “I think he would have left a long time ago and turned it over to my brothers, but I think he feels so dedicated to the employees and making sure that they’re all taken care of, that he wants to stay there and make sure it happens.”
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.