A funny perspective of life as a retail jeweler in the ‘80s & ‘90s
In 1989, a year after Southern Jewelry News began publication, El Paso, Texas jeweler Martha Williams began writing a humorous column for the jewelry publication. Martha and her husband Ben got into the retail jewelry industry in the late 1960s. Her special sense of humor was instrumental in the growth of Southern Jewelry News. Martha wrote her popular column, “Across the Counter,” for over 10 years.
Martha’s first column, printed in May 1989
Dear SJN Readers: I thought I’d write and tell you my husband Ben and I decided to get out of the jewelry industry and retire. We will do all the things we’ve always wanted to do. We will travel, play with the grandkids and sleep late. Cash in on senior citizens bargains and walk for exercise. We have never had time to exercise. We had sat down after Christmas, which had been the second terribly disappointing one in a row.
We had suffered through 1987 with a complete remodeling of the center where our store is located. While the powers that be assured us they would be finished by November, they ran out of materials and the job was strung out through February. During this time, the fronts of the buildings were stripped back to reveal the bare fronts bearing old painted signs and remnants of old businesses. Our identifying sign was removed. The center looked so bad bums thought it to be derelict and tried to move into our building.
Our 1988 Christmas was not much better. Besides the freeway work that seems to go on all the time to widen lanes, the city decided to put a flood control system right down the center of the street serving as a main access to our store. This was a project scheduled to be finished by November. As we carefully and nervously watched the progress, it became obvious they were no longer working on the job. It seems a 9” mistake had been made by the city engineer. This then put the street virtually closed right through the Christmas season making the second bad year in a row. As I write this in March, this project is still in progress.
Ben and I sat down to review the situation. The lease was up and we certainly had a marvelous opportunity to retire. Even our old trusted employees became disenchanted and quit. We chatted about how people we’d helped in times of emergency had gone someplace else rather than come in and fight the construction. We rehashed all the problems of the season:
"How did you like that Mrs. Smith, with us getting her ring ready by Christmas Eve, staying up late to deliver it and having her not show up?”
“And how about the money we lost on theses three returned checks?” RB nodded in approval. “Well, when we retire we will never have to go through that again.” RB looked into space thoughtfully.
“Do you know that for the first time since 1948 I will be able to go to bed without a stiff back from fixing watches or working on jewelry?” He smiled and I had to smile with him. Lord knows how much money we’ve spent on Absorbine Jr. over the years.
“Do you realize we won’t have to put on one more Walmart watch for the customer who couldn’t find you before they bought?” I agreed.
“And RB, do you realize we won’t have to stand on our feet for an hour or more at a time showing wedding sets only to have the couple go someplace else to buy, or decide not to get engaged?” RB was really getting into the conversation now. He chuckled his approval.
“Do you know, Martha, we will be able to eat lunch without having to get up and wait on a customer or have dinner without having had to stay late to accommodate a special customer?” I agreed that would be nice. He was almost laughing now. “And we can forget what the word ‘backorder’ means! We won’t have to face angry customers again.”
I thought about it; “Yes, and you can play golf daily and fly around in your hot air balloon on nice days.”
RB looked pleased. “Yes, and you can have more time with my mother and babysitting the grandkids.”
“Huh?” I said. “Oh, of course.”
“And you can volunteer to bake stuff for the church cookie sales and sell at the Christmas bazaar.”
“Ah, yes,” I agreed half-heartedly. “RB,” I ventured, “I really don’t care too much for babysitting chores and making cookies. After all, I’ve worked my entire life.”
“Well,” he pondered, “once you are not working you’ll love doing these things.”
I looked down at the lease. “Do you realize our lease will be up in just fourteen days?” RB smiled. “Yes, twenty years went by in a hurry!”
“Well,” I said slowly, “do you think we ought to call Blank Jewelers and see about selling out to them?” “They’ve always wanted this location. I’ll bet we could drive a good bargain with them.”
RB studied the ceiling. “I hate to think about old Joe Jerk running my store. It wouldn’t be fair to my customers.”
“Well, RB, they won’t be our customers any longer,” I injected sadly.
“Yes, and some of our customers were very loyal. Some have come to us for thirty years.” RB looked a bit sad. “I suppose they’ll feel let down.”
I studied the drawers full of layaways and looked wistfully over the inventory, some of which must have been here thirty years or more. Then, as if on cue, RB said, “Martha, did you order the watch bands for that new 13mm width watch? And don’t you think we should call the landlord and ask him to drop by and chat about this lease?” I nodded. “And RB, you’d best get those quartz watch movements ordered you ran out of.” He nodded agreeably. “And,” I added, “”we’d better get our advertising lined up for Mother’s Day.”
We decided we’d talk about retirement another day, after another disappointing event. In the meantime, we would sign at least one more lease!
Golf, the grandkids and church cookie baking would simply have to wait until a later date. Sometimes doing what you think you don’t like is really doing exactly what you’d do if given a choice!
Maybe we should have signed a twenty-year lease.