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BIG COOL 1ST PLACE: Erik Runyan Jewelers, Vancouver, WA

Finding Their Sea Legs

Erik and Leslie Runyan feel at home in a new store with nautical notes and a casual ambience.

OWNERS: Erik & Leslie Runyan | URL: runyansjewelers.com | FOUNDED: 1917 | OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2017 | EMPLOYEES: 11 | AREA: 2,350 square feet | BUILDOUT COST: $300,000 | ARCHITECT: Wilson Associates Architects | DESIGN FIRM: Strong Associates | TOP BRANDS: Gabriel & Co., Mark Schneider, Bergio | ONLINE PRESENCE: 873 Facebook likes, 735 Instagram followers, 4.9 stars with 22 Google reviews


TO HAVE YOUR SEA LEGS is to be able to walk calmly and steadily on a tossing ship, or to become accustomed to a new or strange situation. For Erik Runyan, a licensed ship captain and fourth-generation jeweler, being at sea is natural. And being able to express himself in his new store has made him ready to navigate the vicissitudes of a changing jewelry market that unsettles many a mid-career jeweler.

He and his wife, Leslie, have found their sea legs at work.

Runyan is not a suit-and-tie kind of a guy at heart. So after spending decades buttoned-up, figuratively and literally, the couple let their personalities shine through when they moved to their new Main Street location in Vancouver, WA. They hunted for and then hung a canoe upside down from the ceiling, and it became a chandelier. They flooded the space with natural light. They played music they like, including Lyle Lovett, Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Cash and Van Morrison. They celebrated customers’ special occasions with their own wine label. And one day, Erik announced that he was finished with a business-attire dress code and began wearing jeans and polo shirts to work. Leslie was happy to follow suit.

If you want to be current today, you have to be old to be new. Our interpretation of the space as nautical took off like a ball of fire.

Although the previous location, where they’d been since 1991, was just blocks away, it was considered a more established commercial area, so moving to a new place seemed risky to some observers. “I had worked there all my life,” Runyan says. The store was beautiful, in a 1980s kind of way with oak cases, a false ceiling and brass track lights. “In my mind it was a proper 1980s mall jewelry store,” Runyan says. It was beginning to show wear, however, and although they had attempted to remodel, it just wasn’t working.

And then, with a new store in the works, Erik lost his father, Steve, just months before the move, making the transition seem even more of a significant milestone. “He was steadfast in his work, and came in every day until his passing. His jubilant spirit still surrounds the place,” Erik says.

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The new location is at the forefront of an unprecedented $2 billion Vancouver waterfront revitalization that has brought restaurants, wine-tasting rooms and nightlife to downtown.

The big brick building with 18-foot ceilings and lots of natural light beckoned to Runyan when it was being built out by family friends. “I walked in and I was blown away by all the wood on the ceiling and the height of it,” he says. “If you want to be current today, you have to be old to be new. Urban lofty is what people are looking for. We took the space, and because of my quirky background, it just organically happened. Our interpretation of the space as nautical took off like a ball of fire.”

That ball of fire was set in motion once they had found a canoe to purchase and Steve Strong of Strong Construction crafted it into a chandelier. After that, it was natural to install a galley coffee center under the stairs, to hang a ship wheel on the wall and make sure it actually spins, and to greet customers with an exotic-wood compass rose inlaid in the floor near the entrance. Other nautical notes include plank wood flooring, a “welcome aboard” sign, and visibly marked latitude and longitude coordinates.

The store is adjacent to the Columbia River, and the canoe is a powerful symbol for Runyan, for several reasons. The river and access to the ocean created the city of Vancouver and still define both the city and the store. When not running the store, Runyan can be found crewing aboard motor yachts from Mexico to Canada, as a licensed Merchant Marine 100-ton captain.

Erik and Leslie also tracked down the magnificent early 20th century Queen Anne ball-and-leg jewelry cases that Erik’s dad had discovered in Butte, MT, on vacation and used in the family store in the 1980s. When the 1991 store was built, those cases didn’t fit the space or the motif, and so were donated to a museum, and when the museum closed, the cases were mothballed. “We got them back and found craftsmen to refurbish them,” Erik says. He had complementary cases hand-built for the middle of the store by a carpentry shop, creating a cohesive look.

The company’s original cash register and safe look comfortable, too, in a store loaded with digital accoutrements and laser welders.

Staff members Kelsey Price, left, and Conor McHale enjoy the natural light on a June afternoon.

The combination of well-made furnishings and the lofty atmosphere set clients at ease, including young engagement ring shoppers who bring new energy. “Bridal drives it. That’s the first purchase. Between bridal and estate, that’s how I’m making a living,” Runyan says. “We purposely built it to be a more casual environment and to interest the next generation. Having food and drink and a comfortable environment, social media and digital platforms are all important.”

Along with eschewing business attire, Erik and Leslie have improved the quality of life for themselves and their staff by closing on Sundays and Mondays. “We had been open six days a week for 101 years. So the routine I was used to was Monday to Friday, 10 to 5:30 and 10 to 3 on Saturday, but I couldn’t get happy with that here,” he says. So they began closing Sunday and Monday, and now are open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. “I’ve made a lot of decisions in 30 years or so, and that was the best choice at a personal level, a quality of life level. We really enjoy that. Being happy at the end of the day creates a better result, and Saturday has become an important day for us in the business.”

Erik’s great-grandfather, W.L., started the business from a watch bench in the bus depot in the early 1900s, where the Pacific Coast Highway stopped at the Columbia River for the ferry crossing. In 1917, Runyan’s Jewelers was born.

The store is fun for Leslie and me. It’s an absolute rejuvenation. With a new environment, it feels like I almost have a new job.

“My first memories of the family business are looking out the windows of our house to see my impeccably dressed grandparents, who were our neighbors, headed off to work,” Erik says. “The jewelry store seemed to be a magical place. The first generation used watch repair to sustain the store; the second, William, used business skills to create a viable modern jewelry company; the third, Steve, was a trained bench jeweler who focused on the shop. Now it’s my turn. As the fourth, I’ve focused on diamonds, custom work, and Internet marketing. Certainly W.L. Runyan could not have imagined his great-grandson introducing the family business to the world over the Internet.

“This new store, built using century-old techniques, is the culmination of four generations and 100 years, and has been relocated back to its original neighborhood, in conjunction with its 100-year anniversary.”

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Erik describes the business as a living piece of history ready to move into its second century of business.

“Embrace change,” he says. “People — and my customers are no exception — resist change. It has taken time getting them accustomed to finding us at 501 Main. My payoff comes when they walk in the front door ready to complain about their ‘cheese being moved,’ but then stand there at the front door and start to smile and then audibly sigh, saying, ‘OK, now I get it!’”

“The store is fun for Leslie and me,” he says. “It’s an absolute rejuvenation. With a new environment, it feels like I almost have a new job. It’s made a difference. Life’s gotten a little better.”

Judges’ Comments

Benjamin Guttery: They really embrace their history and surroundings. From the nautical compass inlaid in the floor when you walk in, to the custom canoe chandelier (that has a hashtag and campaign around it: #underthecanoe), you know you’re in the Pacific Northwest. Again, the theme of today’s “coolest big stores in North America” is think, act, and be local minded.

Elle Hill: Love it! This is a COOL store. The rustic warm wood, the canoe light fixture, the feel of this man and how he loves the water can all be felt from the website to the store interior to the marketing materials. This is the type of authenticity all retailers should strive for!

Michael Roman: I like the history behind the Queen Anne display cases and the ornamental compass rose. Creating a wine label to promote business is a nice tie-in to the wine events held within the store.

Bob Phibbs: I love the sense of place in this location with the canoe chandelier as well as the refurbishing of the fixtures. The out-of-the-box idea of the wine and opening it with shoppers as well as sending it home is very creative. The online is a great mix of education and product.

Mark Tapper: The canoe chandelier is just so cool and so connected with the nautical theme of the store and the community.

PHOTO GALLERY (28 IMAGES)

5 COOL THINGS ABOUT ERIK RUNYAN JEWELERS

1 Under the canoe. It’s the store’s tagline. and event theme. The canoe symbol is also used in ERJ’s advertising and social media. Erik has designed a canoe-motif necklace, as well, which will be made in sterling silver as well as in gold.

2 Proprietary wine. A wine label is part of the ERJ branding plan. “It gives me great pleasure to open and share a bottle with a customer or send them home with some to enjoy later,” Runyan says. They also introduced Wine Wednesdays, when light appetizers and local seasonal wines are used to create a fun and casual environment, under the canoe.

3 Reinvented inventory. The inventory is a mix of bridal, diamonds, custom and estate. Beyond that, the Runyans look for jewelry that isn’t found anywhere else. “There’s something unique about it that drives me to want to buy it,” Runyan says. “Prior to 2008, we had zero estate jewelry. It was 2010 or 2011 that I started acknowledging that it existed and that helped tremendously. Fifty percent of sales were lost during the recession and we had to find a way to reinvent ourselves, other than just nurturing the bridal.”

4 A spirit of adventure. The Runyans’ roots in the community and spirit of adventure offer an authentic brand experience. Erik and Leslie’s three daughters, now adults, grew up boating and riding dirt bikes on weekends. Erik continues to regularly pursue both of those hobbies, providing him with material for storytelling in the store. His staff, too, has a gift for gab, he says, in the tradition of life aboard a ship.

5 The shadow. Rae is a German shepherd who follows Leslie around the store like a shadow — all day. While she likes about 80 percent of the people she meets, she will simply ignore the others. She takes her job seriously, though, and will lie in front of the entry door while the staff is setting up for the day. When it’s time for her compensation, she will sit and stare at the treat jar, conveniently placed at her eye level.

Eileen McClelland is the Managing Editor of INSTORE. She believes that every jewelry store has the power of cool within them.

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