By Manja Holter
The signage was large, loud and all over the place at 1259 S. Pokegama Ave. in Grand Rapids, announcing the closing of a jewelry store that has been part of this community for more than 65 years.
Everything must go. All inventory (most marked down by 70 percent), display cases, cash registers and office furniture. Not every item might carry an actual price tag, but Len Salmela, owner of Salmela Jewelers, was determined to get rid of his store in its entirety.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t remember its beginnings fondly.
“My dad, Arthur, began as a watch maker. He served an apprenticeship at Schmidt Jewelers of Duluth in the 1940s. He opened up his own repair store in Deer River in 1950. It slowly evolved into a full-service jewelry store, which he moved to Grand Rapids in 1963. It was the weekend Kennedy was assassinated. We will always remember when he moved,” said Salmela.
Grand Rapids already had six jewelry stores when his father moved the business to its first location there on Highway 2 downtown (now home of the MacRostie Art Center.)
“Most jewelers at that time were watchmakers. In those days, everybody had a mechanical watch. The railroad guys, for example, all had to get them cleaned once a year. He went into a tough competitive situation and he managed to make it.”
Len is one of six Salmela siblings. When his father passed away suddenly in 1983, he was the only one without a job, making him the obvious choice for taking over the business.
As a former maintenance mechanic in the mines, he lacked the experience one acquires during a goldsmith or watch-maker apprenticeship. But Len was quick in closing that skills gap by picking up tricks of the trade from the store’s employees.
“I welded and brazed with a torch. It’s kind of the same thing on a smaller basis. It’s a little tiny gas torch instead of a big acetylene torch.”
Following the expansion of Highway 2 and the subsequent loss of storefront parking, Salmela oversaw the company’s move to its final location at Pokegama Plaza in 1993.
One of Salmela’s specialties was the tune-up and repair of grandfather clocks all around the region and his services will be missed - not only by private customers but business partners as well.
Cherie Frick, antique dealer and co-owner of Icecube Coins & Antiques in Remer, Minn. said; “Len has helped us resize rings, repair jewelry and estimate the worth of diamonds. He was always very reasonable, personable and easy to work with. I am sad to see him close his business. It’s a real loss for us because I will have to find another jeweler that I can trust the same way.”
Salmela turns 65 this summer. The approach of the retirement age led to the decision to close the business.
“My wife and I had decided 10 years ago that that was our target for retiring. I had hoped to sell the business and had a couple people who were interested. But everything ended up falling through. I had also made a conscious decision that if I didn’t sell it by a certain time I was going to do a ‘going-out-of-business’ sale because I didn’t want to be one of these people who keep the store open for another 10 years hoping to find a buyer. I wanted to be done.”
Salmela’s four children are all working and living in the Metro area.
“They all have jobs that are more lucrative than tying yourself down to a family owned business,” he said.
When asked about the challenges that independently owned, small town jewelry businesses are facing, Salmela lists the retention of reliable employees as well as the increase of online competition.
“I would have never believed it. I always thought people will want to see a diamond or ring before they bought it. You wouldn’t believe the things that come in for resizing etc. We won’t dare touch it because it’s made so badly.”
Darrel Pitts, a former jewelry store owner with 47 years of experience, who is helping Salmela during the sale, said: “The millennials rather buy on the Internet. But they then come in and want us to confirm that the price they paid was legit. When asked what they paid it is always close to what we estimate, even though the customers thought they’re getting a deal because it was priced at a supposed discount.”
Twenty-five to 30 percent of Salmela’s revenue was generated through repair work. He employed two people who will need to find new positions.
Salmela also estimates that the area supported around three jewelers on average for the past 15 years. The closing of his store presents Grand Rapids with a dramatic reduction of that industry’s presence in the downtown market.
Last July, another Grand Rapids jewelry store, JB Kaiser, opted not to renew the lease for its prominent sale space at the Central Square Mall. Instead, owner Jeff Kaiser opened up a small studio at his private residence, located on 30265 Sunny Beach Road.
He, too, states that the internet had a huge impact on his business model, which set out be an over-the-counter jewelry sales and repair store when he first opened up shop in 1984.
“The choices that the consumer has today have been extended tremendously by the Internet. However, most of the vendors are not jewelers but simply marketers. They buy and often don’t even touch the item. They have no expertise in jewelry.”
Kaiser is a gemologist and goldsmith by trade, which allowed him to shift his revenue streams towards the niche market of custom jewelry design.
“I increased that side of my business by 75 percent in the last years. Primarily, I have customers coming in with an image of a piece of jewelry saying ‘I want exactly that, except...’ I can create whatever they want. Most people coming in either special order or ask for custom design. It is what I enjoy doing most.”
By downsizing his business from 12 showcases to two and moving his shop into his home, Kaiser was able to radically cut down his overhead cost.
Additionally, Kaiser adapted to the market by creating “JB-on-the-Go,” which is essentially a mobile jewelry store housed in a former ambulance truck. He offers a full line of jewelry services from this vehicle as well as “house-sitting” and “temping services” for independently owned jewelry stores whose owners need a fill-in while they are on vacation or in need of time off.
The business idea came to Kaiser during his time as owner of the shop at the mall, which never allowed him to take a leave of absence.
A sentiment that is likely shared by Salmela. He, too, is excited to “not be tied down” and “travel for more than five days.”
As Salmela transitions into retirement, he looks forward to “moving south”, not as in Arizona or Texas, but the Twin Cities area to spend time with his seven grandchildren.
Salmela’s closed its doors for the last time on June, 23.