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America’s Oldest Store

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America’s Oldest Stores

11 stores share more than 1,000 years of accumulated wisdom.

BY EILEEN MCCLELLAND

Published in the March 2014 issue.

A YEAR AGO, we offered our first installment of America’s Oldest Stores, which was so popular we decided to revisit the topic. In this issue, we profile Bixler’s of Allentown, PA, founded in 1785, making it, to our knowledge, the oldest in the United States. Stores with such a history are entitled to brag, but history alone, retailers agree, can’t guarantee continued success. “We never say buy from us because we are the oldest,” says Bixler’s owner Mark Maurer. “We have to be relevant.” As Bruce Freshley of Freshley Media says, store owners can stay current by asking themselves at the beginning of every year, “If I were going to start my business today, what would it look like?” The resilient retailers profiled on the following pages are a small sample of the century club in the jewelry industry, but they offer solid advice for store owners considering how to make their businesses thrive well into the next century.

Bixler’s is the oldest known jewelry store in the United States, founded in 1785 by Revolutionary War veteran Christian Bixler III, and now owned by Mark Maurer.

Dedicated to Service

BIXLER’s was established by Revolutionary War veteran Christian Bixler III in 1785 in eastern Pennsylvania, making it the oldest jewelry store in the United States.

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“We actually made clocks from scratch,” says current owner and president Mark Maurer.

Christian Bixler’s great-greatgreat granddaughter, Joyce Bixler Mitman Welken, representing the sixth generation of Bixlers in the jewelry business, is involved in day-to-day operations to preserve the Bixler legacy, while Maurer is the first non-Bixler family member to own the business.

Welken is the daughter of Kenneth Mitman and Catherine Bixler Mitman. Her dad was an engineer, who was persuaded by her grandfather to lead Bixler’s following the Great Depression.

Welken says that patience and persistence along with careful buying got Bixler’s through those tough times and others, ever since.

“Dad knew nothing about the business,” Welken says. “When he took over in the ’40s there was $11,000 in inventory and a lending library in the back of the store to help bring people in. He had to sell his car the first year to try to get some inventory. He had a long-haul view but he built back a very successful business.”

But the lending library had to go. By the ’50s, Bixler’s had become a Rolex dealer.

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Welken still works for Bixler’s, in sales, handling longstanding corporate gift accounts and reaching out to the old customer base. Her brother, Phillip Bixler Mitman, left the business in 1997, but still talks to local clubs about the history of Christian Bixler, the original clockmaker.

“It was important to me to maintain and continue the family name,” Welken says. “We go back a long way and we’re still going strong.”

In its current 3,000-squarefoot showroom in Allentown, Bixler’s is committed to a lineup of top jewelry designers, including David Yurman, Roberto Coin, Simon G., John Hardy and a collection of Luxury Swiss Watch brands. Bixler’s has also introduced a Bixler Bead Bar, with a special section designated for Trollbeads, and expanded its engagement ring department.

Maurer attributes the success of the business to more than two centuries of dedication to customers. “It’s easy to get close to people when you’re helping them commemorate the special moments of their lives. The key is to focus on people that you serve, their wants, desires and celebrations, and help them accomplish that. They will always remember who helped them do that.”

Realize the Lifetime Value of Each Customer

JOEL HASSLER, president/owner, is the third generation of the second family to own Rasmussen Diamonds. In 2011 he purchased Rasmussen Diamonds from his in-laws, William and Kathleen Sustachek.

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William Sustachek’s father, Cal, had been Frank Rasmussen’s watchmaker. “My dad would come to pick up watches from Frank, and on a bad day, Frank would say, ‘Hey, Cal, want to buy a jewelry store?’” Sustachek recalls. “Cal would say, “When you’re serious, then we’ll talk.”

Rasmussen got serious in 1977 and Cal took him up on the offer.

“This business was built on the heart and soul of Kathy and me, on our love for our customers and our wanting to be there for our customers and our community,” says Sustachek, who still works part-time in the business. “Joel got that message right away. Customers feel the exact same warmth that they did in the past.”

Says Hassler, “We genuinely embrace the true lifetime value of each customer.”

Hassler says he takes the responsibility of the business’s history to heart. He vows that after a century-plus of success, the business will not fail on his watch.

There are few records of the early years, five photos in all, prior to 1977. Hassler knows of Rasmussen’s past locations, but little else.

Even so, there are constant reminders of the store’s history: Most of the cases are original, for example. Although the biggest link to the past is the customers.

“One of the weird things — it’s cool but it always seems weird — is that we sell rings to the greatgrandchildren of people who bought their rings at Rasmussen’s. They come in and it’s not just their dad or their granddad that bought rings there but their great-granddad!

“Were not in a huge community. There are maybe 200,000 in our market, but everybody knows us. We participate in everything. We make sure we are seen and that we support the community. It’s our responsibility.”

RASMUSSEN DIAMONDS: Current owner Joel Hassler knows little about the long history of Rasmussen Diamonds, top left, but he does meet customers whose families have been shopping there for generations

Make Sure They Meet the Family

WHEN YOU WALK into Scherer’s Jewelers, you’ll always be greeted by a Scherer. The fifthgeneration family business consists of owner Rich Scherer, his wife, Margaret, son, Christopher, and daughter-in-law, Erin. Scherer’s Jewelers was founded by Jerome A. Scherer in 1903 after he left Heintz Bros. Ring Manufacturing, where he worked as a jeweler. Jerome’s son, H. Jerome, who was recognized for his skill with precision mechanisms, was often called upon to repair the tower clocks that dotted the Buffalo skyline. In 2012, Rich Scherer’s son, Christopher, joined the business, representing the fifth generation.

“There has always been a member of the Scherer family in the store,” Rich Scherer says. “Customers want to deal with the owners of the business, and not just a clerk. Family members understand the importance of every customer, whether they are making a large purchase or bringing in a minor repair. It is our name and reputation that makes us what we are and have been for 110 years.”

SCHERER’S JEWELERS: Founder Jerome A. Scherer, his wife, Louise, and their granddaughter Aileen in front of Scherer’s Jewelers in Buffalo, NY,

Change and Grow with the Times

H.L. GROSS & BRO. JEWELRY was founded in 1910 in Brooklyn, NY, and recently moved into a 5,400-square-foot store in Garden City. Fourth-generation owner Michael Gross is assisted by his son, Brad Gross, a GIA graduate gemologist and AGS certified gemologist.

The first “store” was two barrels and a board, says Brad, who also says the infamous bank robber Willie Sutton once robbed H.L. Gross “back in the day.”

“One thing I have learned,” says Michael, “is that each generation brings something new to the table. My great-grandfather was interested in starting a business for his two sons and giving them a future in the new country he had immigrated to. My grandfather and brother were promoters and salesman, growing the business to three locations and always looking for ways to generate new business. My father was more interested in upgrading the image of the store. He took in the Rolex line over 60 years ago after seeing it in Europe while stationed there during the war. He also set up a diamond-cutting wheel and cutter in the 1960s and was selling a dozen engagement rings a day and promoting diamonds heavily.”

H.L. Gross’ Jamaica, Queens, NY, location in the early 1940s.

When Michael entered the business, he began to concentrate more on profits, inventory control and smarter buying for return on investment. He also used his engineering background to set up the company’s first website.

Brad signed on in 2001 after he graduated from college and earned his GG from the GIA. He went on to develop a highly sophisticated website, since1910. com that has been instrumental in the company’s continued growth.

“My other son Matt became an expert in fine watches,” Michael says. “He has attended auctions all over the world, written for Chronos magazine and built up a large following of customers.”

Adds Brad, “The one thing I’ve learned from my father is trust. At a young age I learned that you had to do whatever it takes to do right by your customers. Word of mouth travels a long time.”

Demonstrate Integrity

IN 1905 Morris Wilson emigrated from Russia and opened the original Wilson & Son store in Manhattan. In 1926 at the age of 21, Meyer Wilson opened in Bronxville, in Westchester County. In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, he opened another store in Scarsdale. Five expansions later, Wilson & Son Jewelers is still in Scarsdale.

In 2006 the family opened a location in Mount Kisco, NY, and became part of the community in northern Westchester, as well.

The business, owned by brothers Matthew and Michael Wilson, carries fine jewelry and watch brands and offers watch and jewelry repair, custom-made pieces and giftware.

“Our great-grandfather came over from Russia, he was a watch and clockmaker,” says Matthew Wilson. “Our grandfather was a watch and clock maker; and our father was a bench jeweler. The integrity that they had flows through to me and my brother. It’s about truly treating every customer as you would treat them if they walked into your home.”

An earlier version of Ralph Miller Jewelers & Gallery, shows silver displayed in antique cases.

“We’ll Design What You Have In Mind”

RALPH MILLER JEWELERS & GALLERY, located in the historic heart of downtown Erie, PA, celebrated 115 years in 2013.

Owners Janice and Daniel Niebauer are the fourth owners of the business. They make jewelry and have their own jewelry line. “We try to fulfill what the customer wants no matter how long it takes,” Dan says.

Originally called the Northwestern PA Silver Exchange, the business later became Beyer Jewelers, then Summerhoff’s and finally Ralph Miller Jewelers & Gallery in 1952. In the ’50s, Ralph Miller won a national contest for holiday window displays by independent jewelers.

The store maintains European traditions with five master goldsmiths onsite, specializing in designing and manufacturing unique pieces with custom design and castings, manufacture and repairs all done in house.

Its goals are quality, unique merchandise and outstanding personal service, and customers include jewelry retailers, hence the nickname, “The Jeweler’s Jeweler.”

The store also offers special group tours with one-hour advance notice.

Other taglines: “Where Erie Gets Engaged, “The Can Do Jeweler” and “Where Jewelry Is Art.”

Be a Full Service Provider

BOTH R. DUBOSE JEWELERS of Newman, GA., and Dubose & Son Jewelers of Vero Beach, FL, are descended from the store founded by JC Dubose in 1912 in the East Coast Florida town of White City.

Ray Dubose relocated to Georgia in 1990 with his wife, Linda, and began a new, full-service business, while his brother Mike stayed on with their father in Vero Beach. Mike’s son has since joined, representing the fifth generation. “We started out with one store and at one point we had up to seven stores in malls and small towns,” throughout the Treasure Coast, Mike says. “My dad retired, we closed those stores and we opened up a small store in Vero Beach. We do a lot of service work, which makes a big difference to keep us going.

That’s been our lifeline. We do well with diamonds but service is the big thing. We fix anything from costume jewelry right on up to the expensive stuff.” That and community involvement, says his brother, Ray.

“Our main stores have always been on main streets, so we have been involved in community affairs, local government,” Ray says. “You get the opportunity to help make decisions that relate to the business community and health and welfare of your family, and how the community grows.”

In Vero Beach, where the Dodgers had a spring training camp for decades, the business had a great relationship with the team.

Another key to the family’s longevity in the jewelry business is perseverance, Ray says. “We’ve always been fortunate to have somebody interested in the business and capable of carrying on.”

DUBOSE JEWELERS: Owner Oscar DuBose is shown circa 1925. The store spawned two separate family businesses, one still in Vero Beach, and the other in Newman, GA.

Offer Expertise
FOUNDED IN 1890 by German immigrant Michael Lemp, M Lemp Jewelers has been in downtown Syracuse for its entire history. Upwards of seven watchmakers were on staff in the early days. In 1903, Lemp purchased an Iroquois truck, the second motorized vehicle in Syracuse, which was used to deliver watch, clock and optical repairs. The original vehicle is displayed in the store. In 1976 W. Donald Lemp became the fourth generation of jewelers to join in the family tradition. Today the business employs four GIA trained diamond graders, a bench jeweler and a watchmaker. Its motto is honesty, hard work and straightforwardness.

M LEMP JEWELERS: At top, founder Michael Lemp purchased the second motorized vehicle in Syracuse, N.Y, in 1903 — to deliver repairs. It’s currently on display at M Lemp Jewelers.

Give Them What They Want

MILKINS JEWELERS was established in 1905 by Archibald Burdett Milkins in Wyandotte, MI. Eight years ago, fourth-generation family member Lesley Milkins Alban joined the business. She says that while some things have changed since the days of her great-grandfather — Milkins no longer sells china, flatware and crystal, for example — one important thing that has bridged the generations is that they still take the time to find out what their customers want, before any orders are placed or new lines signed on. “Our business was founded on ethics and always putting the customer first. We get feedback through conversation and social media about what our customers want,” she says. Vendors include Lovelinks by Aagaard, Barbara Westwood, MetalSmiths Sterling, Allison- Kaufman Co., Elma Gil, and Gem Platinum. Milkins also promotes its fair pricing policy on its website: “We offer fine jewelry at fair prices the first time you ask. We do not inflate our prices in order to give you a false discount.”

MILKINS JEWELERS: At right, Milkins Jewelers founder Archibald Burdett Milkins in Wyandotte, MI.

New Media, Old School

READERS FINE JEWELERS in Santa Monica, CA, turned 100 in 2012. But Eddie Guerboian, who bought the business in 1967, is not complacent. He completed a remodel five years ago and he and his son, Avedis, “Avo,” reach out to the younger generation with social media.

Their secret to stellar Yelp reviews is offering more than anyone expects and being “old school” where in service, while offering quality at a fair price.

“Jewelers can be hungry, but I’m not hungry for the money,” Eddie says. “I am hungry for the customer satisfaction. By ensuring that, they will come back.”

Eddie’s mom, Lucy, widely known as Mrs. G., handles traditional correspondence for the business, including thank you notes and birthday and anniversary cards. Eddie’s wife, Evelyn, is the CEO. Eddie mans the phones, and Avo keeps up with email and social media.

“Nothing is the same,” Eddie says. “We have to change with the times and still give the quality and the service.”

READERS FINE JEWELERS: Above left, Eddie Guerboian is shown with his son, Avedis, “Avo,” who has joined him in the business.

Leaning on History

JACOB REUSCH came to Petoskey as a watchmaker in 1885. He was responsible for certifying all of the railroad time pieces in northern Michigan, an important job that he did until he died in 1951.

Vance Reusch, president of Reusch Jewelers, is the fourth generation of his family to own and operate the business, which has two stores in Petoskey and Cheboygan, MI.

One of the largest repair jobs that Jacob handled, with his son Fred, was in the early 1930s when the town clock in the old courthouse stopped working. The clock works had to be taken apart but, because the pieces were so large, tools had to be borrowed from the plumbing department of the local hardware store. One of the bronze shafts had become pitted and flat on one side. It was built up and machined by the local blacksmith shop.

“In this case it was no joke that a timepiece had been repaired by a plumber and a blacksmith,” Vance Reusch recounts.

Jacob’s founding principles of “integrity, quality, service,” have guided the business through 128 years and are as important as ever today,” Reusch says.

“The long history of the store helped me immensely through the difficult times of the past seven or eight years. Knowing that my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all went through difficult times and never faltered bolstered my confidence in weathering this recession. As a family, having continued through two world wars, the Great Depression and countless other hard times, I know there is no problem that can’t be overcome.”

REUSCH JEWELERS: At top, Jacob Frederick Reusch, at right, circa 1910, with unidentified employees in the store he bought from Will Searle in Petoskey, MI. Jacob Reusch, a watchmaker, is also shown at work in the smaller photo.

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