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Business Was Good, and So Was the Economy. He Closed His Jewelry Store Anyway

Marshalls Jewelers is among 71 stores listed as closed, merged or sold by the Jewelers Board of Trade.

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YEARS BEFORE HE DECIDED to close Marshalls Jewelers in San Luis Obispo, CA, Jeff McKeegan had his escape plan ready: a beach in Uruguay, a forest on the South Island of New Zealand, a farm in Northern Ireland, “just about anywhere, really,” he told the local Chamber of Commerce.

Jeff McKeegan

“When retirement finally comes, I will be off like a shot.”

Retirement finally came. Marshalls Jewelers is among the 71 stores listed as closed, merged or sold in the preliminary January report from the Jewelers Board of Trade.

His closure of a local institution heading toward its 130th year certainly was not taken lightly. He spent two years “questioning whether this is the right decision,” as he explained to the San Luis Obispo New Times.

On the one hand, “Business has been good, the economy has been good so we figured we might as well, we’ll do it now,” he told the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

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Although he had found the jewelry business incredibly rewarding, it seemed time to pursue his old dream of traveling the world with his life partner (now husband) of more than 40 years, Steven deLuque. On the other hand, there was a powerful legacy to consider.

Manuel Marshall opened the store in 1889, eventually passing it to his son Art, who in turn sold it to cousin Clifford Chapman.

In 1981, local college student Jeff McKeegan stopped by the store to pick up a gift. It proved to be a life-changing serendipity, and soon after left his jobs a waiter to go to work for Chapman at Marshalls.

“Working beside him daily for years was the best schooling I ever had,” he said of Chapman, according to the chamber. “I have never known anyone who gave of himself more every day. His concern and care for others was complete and genuine.”

In addition to his love of fine jewelry and custom design, Chapman passed on to McKeegan the fundamental lessons of running a retail business: “Compassion. Humility. To put people first – before things, before process.”

After more than a dozen years working with his mentor, who died in 2012, McKee bought Marshalls with a business partner in 1993, and quickly began to expand the store’s reach into the rapidly evolving world of computer technology.

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“You have to reinvent yourself from time to time,” said McKeegan of the changes he instituted over the years. “But you don’t want to run the risk of losing what you have, what is already working.”

What worked for Marshalls throughout its long history was a solid emphasis on customer service.

“Anyone, any store or studio, can have good merchandise to sell,” he told the chamber. “You have to set yourself apart with the service you give. It is the personal connection that keeps you going strong. I love that we have clients now whose families have been with us for generations. To engender that kind of loyalty you must not only treat people well, but let them know by your actions that they are important to the success of the business.”

Shortly before the store’s closing, he reminisced to KSBY-TV, “We had a young man in here the other day, 16 years old, came in said he wanted to buy an engagement ring. He said, ‘I don’t have a girlfriend … but my family has always bought their engagement rings here and I’ll be the fifth generation and I want to have a ring when I find the right girl.'”

Such stories were told and retold in the weeks before the store’s closing.

“I can’t tell you how many tears have been shed on both sides of the counter,” McKeegan told New Times.

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“It’s bittersweet, but I’m going.”

Like a shot.

A veteran U.S. journalist, Bill Hutchinson has received several national awards for writing and editing. He lives in Mexico City.

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