Life Before Series - Life Before Jared's
Many of the small independent jewelry stores in McHenry County have disappeared along with the independent clothing boutiques and drug stores. Those that remain conduct business in a much more complex environment than in the 1950’s.
When my parents moved from the south side of Chicago to Crystal Lake in 1948, I was the “baby” in the family and had an older sister and big brother. My Dad had been a diamond cutter in his youth and spent his entire 40 year career with one company which bought and sold semi-precious and precious gems in the wholesale marketplace. He worked in one of the “jewelers” buildings in the Chicago Loop.
Dad was one of the few Crystal Lake commuters who actually enjoyed his long train commute to ‘The Loop’. It was so much better than transferring buses from the south side of Chicago in all kinds of inclement weather. He enjoyed socializing and playing cards in the morning and at night with three or four other commuters. A train porter always had a table top ready for “the boys” and one of the group would arrive early for the train ride back so he could save a table in the ‘Club Car’ where everyone could enjoy a beer. He was very grateful that his days of standing on crowded buses or waiting in the rain for a late one were finally over!
Part of Dad’s daily routine was to stop in at the Crystal Lake News Agency to buy a newspaper before commuting. Dave Donner was the owner & proprietor who sold local and city papers along with a myriad of different magazines. Business was good for Dave in 1950 and when the space next door to him became vacant, he decided to expand and rent the larger store. Not long after hearing about Dave’s plans, my parents decided to rent his old store at the corner of Williams and Woodstock Street and open DREHER JEWELERS.
Our jewelry store was definitely a family project. Dad’s experience made the dream possible and Mom’s intelligence, creativity and love of beauty were definite assets when channeled into the new store. My big brother helped out when he was home from college and my older sister helped in the afternoons after high school and on weekends. Being the youngest at home, I also assumed new responsibilities at dinner time and around the house. I had finally graduated from being the “baby” and was soon to have a new identity ”the jeweler’s daughter”.
Our family home was on Paddock Street. It was a wonderful location for a family with children because we could all walk to school and to town. My mother never learned to drive a car but that didn’t prevent her from walking to the jewelry store every day and
buying groceries for dinner on the way home. Dad walked daily to the train station and either my sister or I would walk to town when we were needed to help out at the store.
Our store location was also great. We were kitty-corner from the train station where there was always a taxi waiting for commuters so if Mom ever needed a ride home in bad weather, one was always available. We were also directly across the street from the Olympic Restaurant which we affectionately called “the Greeks” after Pete and Gus the two brothers from Greece who owned it. It was so convenient to run across the street for lunch or a quick Friday night dinner. Hart’s grocery store was just a few buildings south and most of Mom’s household errands could be easily accomplished on a lunch hour or on her way home from work.
Unlike the jewelry mall stores of today, our downtown store was small – just one room with a cubby hole that might have been a closet at one time. A rather large safe was tucked out of sight and a desk with overhead shelves and a chair was squeezed into the closet like space. One person could handle the phone and comfortably write out statements and keep the books. A small step stool could be stored against the jeweler cases in the tiny aisle for additional seating if more than one family member was working. The store was just large enough to accommodate four large jewelry showcase counters formed in an “L” shape. Jewelry was displayed attractively in the top windowed part of the counter and boxes and additional inventory were stored in the space below. There was a large front window facing Williams Street which was remodeled to be our main jewelry display area to attract customers walking along the street and commuters heading to the train station. Every evening we took the most expensive items from the front display window and stored them in our cubby hole safe.
The entrance to the store was in the Northeast corner and a work station was directly across from the door where the two rows of jeweler cases met. Our cash box, receipt books, and container for customer repairs was set up here and was only a few feet from the cubby hole office area. Everything was quite efficient with no wasted space. Every customer could be clearly seen entering and leaving the shop. I don’t believe we ever had an incident of shoplifting. Because the store was at the end of Williams Street, it had windows on the north and west sides and above the corner door which provided a lot of natural light most days. There were shelves for displaying gifts along the north wall and still there was enough center space for the store to feel spacious in spite of its small size. It never felt cramped and three or four family members could move easily in the aisle behind the counters at busy times. Mom was the responsible architect for this creative use of space.
We did have competition for customers. Walter W. Kardas ran a jewelry store a few buildings south of us. He was a gifted watch repair man and had been in business for several years before we arrived on the scene. There was also a jeweler in Woodstock who advertized in the Crystal Lake Herald along with a few jewelers from Elgin. The fifties were prosperous times and supported us all.
We definitely had interesting neighbors at 144 North Williams. Our store was located directly below the old Blethen Hotel which was built to accommodate train travelers visiting from the city in the early 1900’s. We had a back door in the east wall of our store that led to the old hotel lobby where we shared bathroom facilities with other tenants. A magistrate/justice of the peace rented an office on the other side of the old hotel’s entrance and our family became friendly with him and the regular building maintenance people. Although the hotel was far from full, there was always an array of interesting characters going up and down the lobby stairs. Something was always happening and there was plenty of gossip to liven up conversations on a slow afternoon.
We also had an interesting array of travelling salesmen who would drop by regularly to “chat” and sell us their lines of costume jewelry, watches or giftware. It didn’t take us long to develop “favorites” among the salesmen and many a pleasant hour was spent on a slow day listening to entertaining and charming stories while viewing their newest collections. Although much of our inventory of fine gold and silver jewelry came from Dad’s contacts in the Loop, we carried costume brand names such as Kremenz, Napier, Trafari, and Ballou as well as Elgin, Hamilton and Omega watches. We also sold figurines, clocks, crystal, sterling silverware and hollowware as well as class rings to graduates. When specialized engraving was involved on rings, jewelry or sterling ware, we used a local Crystal Lake farmer who had taken up engraving for a sideline and had become quite accomplished at his art.
Our business also included selling and setting diamonds and precious gems into engagement and wedding rings. Because of Dad’s unique experience as a diamond cutter in his youth and his on-going involvement in selling semi and precious gems to the wholesale market, he was able to educate his customers about the diamonds they were purchasing to a greater degree than most jewelers. I still have an unusual replica collection of “Diamonds of the World” which we displayed in our store window for many years. A duplicate collection is currently on display at the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary in Elmhurst, Illinois. The collection includes a copy of the famous Hope Diamond which came to be in my Dad’s possession for a day during the early 1930’s. There was to be a special exhibit of the diamond in Chicago and another replica had to be cut. My dad was chosen for that honor and he did so while a “G” man sat right beside him to make sure no swap was made!
The “Dreher” system for our jewelry and watch repair business was quite simple.
We put broken watches or jewelry into small 2 ½ x 5” brown envelopes with a tear-off flap containing an identifying number that was given to the customer. We wrote down the customer’s name, phone number, estimate to repair and brief description of what was to be done on the envelope which had the same identifying number as the tear off flap.
Dad regularly took the repairs into the “Loop” and would stop at one of the offices in his building - The Chicago Watch Company - and they did our watch repairs. Another company in his building did most of our jewelry repairs. They were reasonable and convenient and we were able to provide this service to our customers without actually doing it ourselves. After the repairs were made, someone from the family would phone the customer to let them know their item was ready. This simple system worked well for the entire time we were in business.
All sales and repairs were hand written on numbered, two-part statements that came in a packet of 200 or so. We put all 200 into a metal container somewhat similar to the plastic container for a roll of postage stamps. After a bill for a sale or a repair was written up, we would tear off statement #1001 leaving statement #1002 showing in the metal container. One copy of the statement was given to the customer and one was retained for our records. All numbers had to be accounted for and if we had to rewrite a statement for some reason, we had to keep the voided copies so that our records would be complete. The statement/receipts were entered regularly into our bookkeeping ledger by Mom, reviewed monthly by Dad and periodically sent to an accountant. The ledger had different columns for sales and repairs, for inventory costs and building expenses. We all knew what TMXX.xx meant when entered in the ledger....$1500.00. Our inventory code for identifying the cost of an item was TOURMALINE, the ten letter name for a semi-precious gem. The X’s represented 0’s. If something cost $25 it was marked OM.xx.
Itemized bills were sent out monthly to a small number of “credit” customers and to those customers using a “lay-a-way” method of payment to buy an expensive piece of jewelry or an engagement ring. Non-payment of a charge was rare. We never had the need of a “collection agency”. A few follow-up phone calls might be necessary if someone was slow to pay but outside pressure was never applied. No one used credit cards in the 50’s. You either had good credit with my Mom and Dad and they allowed you to charge or you used the “lay-a-way” method. What could be simpler?
Business hours for many retail businesses in Crystal Lake during the 1950’s were 9am to 5pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. On Wednesday, we closed our store at 1:00pm and on Friday we stayed open until 9:00pm. Although my mother’s day was quite full, she still managed to have an attractive and healthy meal for the family at 6:30pm when my father arrived home from Chicago. Dinner preparation wasn’t as easy as it is today. Frozen dinners were unheard of and we ate fresh fruit and vegetables whenever possible. On Friday nights when the store stayed open later, our schedule varied. Sometimes my sister and dad worked the later hours and Mom and I were able to stay home at have dinner in front of the TV. It was a treat to have this special time with her while watching Peggy Wood in the weekly Friday night series - “I Remember Mama.”
Christmas hours were special. The merchants of downtown Crystal Lake stayed open from 9am to 9pm for 2 – 2 ½ weeks before Christmas. It was always a very busy and hectic time for the Dreher family. My brother would come home from college on his Christmas vacation and help out in the early years and as soon as I was able to wrap a presentable gift, I was put on the payroll for a small hourly salary. I remember wrapping gifts in a lovely striped gift wrap or gold and silver foil. I tried to stay out of the way and set up a small gift wrapping area at the end of the counter near the back door leading to the old hotel lobby.
My mother had a talent for making our store front window look lovely, especially at Christmas time. She received many complements on her creative touches over the years. Today my niece celebrates Christmas with her family by bringing out an old white velvet Santa about two feet tall that decorated our jewelry store window for several holiday seasons over fifty years ago. I enjoy seeing it in her home and relish the good memories it brings to mind.
Every Halloween Mom got a reprieve from store front decorating. Grade school and high school students arrived in droves to paint ghoulish scenes on merchant windows along Williams Street. Prizes were always awarded and store owners took pride if the class painting on their window won. There would be pictures of the paintings in the Crystal Lake Herald along with the names of the prize winners. Of course, the store owner received some lovely free publicity!
Our advertising budget for the jewelry store was small. It included a listing in the phone book and its yellow pages as well as advertising several times a month in the Crystal Lake Herald which came out every Thursday in the 1950’s. Radio and television advertising weren’t even considered. On holidays we ran bigger more specialized ads and on New Year’s we joined with other Crystal Lake merchants in wishing all our customers a “Thank You” for their business during the past year.
When I was old enough and if I was needed, I would work after school and on Saturdays. It only took me 10 or fifteen minutes to walk from the Central High School on Franklin Street or from our home on Paddock Street. I would take in simple repairs, change a watch band, make follow up calls to remind customers to pick up their repairs and run errands for my Dad and Mom. At that time there was also a Jewel Food Store on Williams Street and I could help with the family grocery shopping.
Almost all of the businesses located on Williams Street in the 1950’s are gone now. The Fabric Shop, Heisler’s Bootery, and the Olympic Restaurant are among the few remaining. Some like the Jewel, Home State Bank, Walgreens, and Ace Hardware have moved to different locations within Crystal Lake. Many of the small family businesses and retail shops like Raue Hardware, Louise Quinn’s clothing store for women, Althafer’s Drug Store, Sweetland’s Bakery, Tober’s Men Store, Cohen’s Department Store, Moat’s TV and Appliances, and the Crystal Lake News Agency quietly disappeared over the years. The old Blethen Hotel and Standard Oil gas station just north of it were destroyed when streets were widened some years back.
In spite of all the changes to Williams Street, the decision to open Dreher Jewelers was a very good one for our family. It opened up our lives to many new and positive experiences. Dad joined the Chamber of Commerce that held regular Monday meetings at the old Czecho Lodge and met many other business men and their families. My sister thoroughly enjoyed working in the store and took over completely when Mom and Dad traveled away from home. She later worked in the wholesale jewelry business building on her experience in our little store. My Mom’s life greatly expanded. She became a good business woman and purchased much of our inventory when she went on “buying” trips into Chicago. She learned to become a saleswoman and a bookkeeper and found a wonderful outlet for her intelligence and creativity. As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed my new identity of being “the jeweler’s youngest daughter.” Our small family made many new friends and acquaintances through the store. While we didn’t grow rich, we were very grateful for our place in the community, our enriched relationships and the active lifestyle that owning a jewelry business during the 1950’s provided. It made living in Crystal Lake in an era “BEFORE JARED’S” a very wonderful family experience.