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America's Coolest Stores

America’s Coolest Stores 2012: Small Cool 2 Idar

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Idar is the epitome of a small store, with its showroom coming in at a tidy 250 square feet. And it isn’t precisely on the cutting edge: The shop’s exterior resembles an old German house, and every piece of jewelry inside is handcrafted without the aid of CAD or similar tools.

So why all the buzz? It’s because the store has attracted a legion of loyal customers from all over the world and brings in millions of dollars each year.

Owner and goldsmith-in-residence Idar Bergseth, now 67, dreamed of being a jeweler since his childhood, says his daughter and store manager, Lara Bergseth.

“It’s something that he wanted to do ever since he was about 6. He’s Norwegian. His parents came here when he was a little boy, and they lived in Vancouver. He used to get his mother to hold him up to look into the window of a local chain jewelry store, Birks,” she says. “He loved jewelry.”

At 17, Bergseth apprenticed himself to a well-known Vancouver goldsmith, who trained the younger man in the European tradition of making jewelry by hand. That led to work in Beverly Hills with high-end brand-name jewelers, and paved the way for him to win industry accolades like the De Beers Diamonds Today Award and a first place in the Saul Bell Design Awards.

But Victoria, a city of about 350,000, eventually drew him back. The city gets compared to England, Lara says, and maybe it’s “a little sleepy.” But because it’s a capital with a university, museum, and excellent weather — rarely does it snow in the winter — it gets a lot of tourists. “There are lots of people here with money, which is nice,” she says.

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Today, visitors to the store must step past three brass bees set into the sidewalk out front. The bee logo, which Lara designed, reflects her father’s longtime hobby — he’s an apiarist, or beekeeper. When the city tore up the sidewalk for construction next door, Bergseth asked the workers if they could drop the bees into the wet pavement. The workers agreed, and refused payment. “They said, ‘Oh, just give us some beer!’” Lara says, laughing. “Canadians, right?”

Inside, guests find themselves in a cleanly laid-out showroom, fittingly Scandinavian in its modern minimalism. Blond wood cases present jewelry hung on black displays, for a striking contrast, and a curved line of electric candle fixtures light the space. There are just two counters.

Back in the shop — which is four times larger than the sales floor — Bergseth and three other goldsmiths practice their craft.

“It has kind of a Northern European flair” is how Lara describes the look of Idar’s work. “There’s this Norwegian art form called rosemaling, and it’s very swirly and swooshy, kind of floral. And a lot of our jewelry has that look to it.”

Idar does most of its business in engagement rings and wedding bands, Lara says, frequently customized. “Mostly people come in and see something in the case, but then we’ll modify it a bit.” She’s delighted that in recent years, customers’ tastes have moved away from strictly conservative looks. “We’re doing a lot of big, bold pieces lately, too, which is really fun, because for so many years, it was really understated. It was all white metal and smaller things. Now it’s going into pieces like rings with 10 colored stones. Nice change.”

TRY THIS

To get her dad to eat better, Lara started making him lunch each day, and that turned into a healthy lunch program for the whole staff. Everyone kicks in $20 a week to buy groceries, and then they cook and eat together every afternoon. (The shop doesn’t close, but lunch hour is quiet in Victoria.) It’s not mandatory to participate, she says. “But everybody wants to! We take an hour off and sit and talk about work things, or not.”

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SHOP TALK

“Mother of pearl!” A nicer version of “mother of God!”

“No one can help you now.” Employees say this to one another when they’ve just encountered someone difficult to deal with.

 

QUICK FACTS
 

Location: Victoria, BC, Canada
URL: idar.com
Owners: Idar Bergseth
Founded: 1972
Opened Featured Location: 1984
Area: 250 square feet (showroom), 1,000 square feet (workshop), 500 square feet (lunchroom and kitchen)
Employees:4 full-time, 2 part-time
Tagline: Often imitated — never duplicated
ONLINE PRESENCE:
Alexa Traffic Rank: 21,372,479
Yelp Rating: 4 stars

 

 

 
     
   

The bee branding is prominent in all things Idar — from its advertising, to the pavement in front of the store, to the roof, where real beehives reside.

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“Our music playlist is constantly evolving and quite eclectic,” Lara says. “It’s always on shuffle and plays everything from [Norwegian composer] Edvard Grieg (Idar’s fave) to Pitbull (my pick) to Johnny Cash (Lance’s choice). We also have a lot of older songs in the shuffle, like music from the ’70s and ’80s.”

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FIVE COOL THINGS

1. THE HIVE MIND Idar’s bee logo shows up everywhere in the store’s marketing — on its packaging, pens, and pencils, the chocolates they give customers, and even on the employees themselves. Years ago, Lara Bergseth and Lance Glenn got bee tattoos. They also give free bee pins to customers. “Lance wears one all the time,” Lara says. “People see it and say, ‘Oh, I love that store!’ and he’ll take it off and give it to them.” The store also gives gifts of honey from Idar Bergseth’s own bees.

2. A COSMOPOLITAN SENSIBILITY Between the store and workshop, Idar is like a miniature United Nations, with one employee from Norway, one from Japan, one from South Africa, one from Mexico and the rest from Canada.

3. OLD SCHOOL “Everything we carry is made here,” Lara says. “And mostly it’s hand-forged, handmade, not even cast. We’re talking cold forged, which is a dying art. It’s neat.” That gives Idar’s jewelry a desirably unique look. “It’s hard, though, to find goldsmiths who handmake jewelry!”

4. LESS IS MORE At 250 square feet, the showroom is “as big as it’s ever been,” says Lara, who once worked in the larger jewelry section of a local department store. The smaller space is easy to keep orderly and secure. “It works! I find it easy. You can get to everything; I know where everything is. That being said, the building itself is 3,000 square feet, so the showroom is deceptively small.”

5. ANIMALS Idar is home to a small zoo. There are two dogs: Jock, a rescue pit bull, and Sammie, a French bulldog. (“He’s really disgusting,” Lara jokes.) They’re joined by four cats and whatever pets happen to be visiting with their owners at any given time. And then there are the bees Idar keeps on the roof. “That’s just a fun thing for him. It’s a little precarious to take customers up there.”

WHAT THE JUDGES SAY

Larry Johnson: I like the way the store design connects the merchandise with the owner’s creativity and the local environment. It all seems to meld into a single brand that obviously strikes a chord with the local clientele.

Ellen Hertz: Idar knows who he is and what he stands for — I love that! I also love the fact that he is making virtually everything by hand — that is rare and special, and a good (read: repeat) customer will appreciate and understand the value in that. Generating significant revenue from a 250-square-foot space speaks to the quality of his work — both in terms of design and craftsmanship.

Maeve Gillies: This store makes me want to visit and claim my own logo bee pin and a pot of homemade honey! The interior, concept and story is progressive, tasteful and refined. Every touch-point of presentation and product has a sense of heritage, quality and social consciousness.

Jim Ackerman: The interior of the store demonstrates an exceptional use of a very small showroom. The lightness and openness, along with the modern, clean lines, makes the space feel bigger and comfortable. The bee theme is intriguing, and the customer service approach is beyond reproach.

Stephanie Maxey: I loved the bee insignia from the sidewalk to the wrapping materials and how it evolved. The exterior appeal of the store is storybook, while the interior is modern and a little mischievous. What I appreciated is that Idar is in love with his craft and is exceptional at it. He’s had little employee turnover, which says it all. Family lunching concept? I dare say Idar is cool.

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