In a society that values independence, speed and self-reliance, aspiring newbie’s in the industry may benefit from following a different business model; one of patience, apprenticeship and partnership. Barney Gilley, Sr., the 88 year old owner of Gilley’s Jewelers in Big Gap, VA, knows a thing or two about hard work, patience and running a successful business, and he’s willing to share his 60+ years of expertise with all of us.
When Barney Gilley finished his WWII service, he came home looking for a job. A friend asked if he’d help out with his newly acquired retail jewelry store and Barney agreed. Working with his friend afforded him valuable experience which gave Barney confidence in his new career. Soon the owner/friend asked Barney to open a 2nd store for him. After the successful completion of that task it wasn’t long before Barney decided it was time to open his own store.
In 1947 Gilley’s Jewelers opened to the public, but lose the grandiose ideas about a brand new, stand-alone space with sparkling new cabinets and a beautiful sign reading Gilley’s Jewelers. No, Barney played it safe and opened his watch repair business in an existing furniture store.
“For three years I operated my watch repair business in the corner of a local furniture store to build my business,” recalls Barney. “I finally moved out to my own space in the early ‘50s when I grew big enough to have established customers and one employee.”
Barney is quick to tell you that in those early days his business grew by offering lines of credit and open charge accounts to his customers. The accounts acted as a type of auto-renewal for his customers and he grew his inventory to include fashion, keepsake items and name brand watches.
In 1963, 16 years after he opened his own business, he built his own store. Carrying fine jewelry as well as bridal registry items, Gilley’s Jewelers now offered the small community of Big Stone Gap everything from china, to silver to crystal.
It’s all about family
Like most independent, family-owned jewelers, Barney often brought his son to work with him. Barney Gilley, II worked after school all the way through college. He joined his dad after college and opened a second location in a neighboring town. He managed that store for 12 years before taking a hiatus from the jewelry industry. His return in 2000 provided Gilley’s Jewelers with a goldsmith and jewelry repair man at the store.
“I’m training my son to do watch repairs,” states Barney, Sr. “It is a true dying art and he needs to learn all he can because one day it will be lost.”
When asked about the changes he’s seen over the last 66 years, Barney, Sr. quickly points to a loss of personal relationships:
“The industry has come from a mom and pop, family-owned chain stores to websites and internet shopping, and we’ve lost that personal relationship we had when I started. I built my business one customer at a time, with one-on-one relationships where my customers became friends long before they became diamond buyers. Today you can walk into a large store and pick something out and never meet or connect with anyone from the store. With all the rushing around and hurrying we’ve lost the sense of community.”
But for Barney, not all is lost. He sees hopeful signs that the younger generations may start to see the value in connecting with their jeweler.
“I believe I’ve seen some signs that mom and pop stores might become popular again. I think the young ones will come back to us because they’ll realize what they’ve missed, and jewelry customers may be coming out of a self-service era and going back to a full service experience with the independents.”
But Barney does admit the price of gold would make starting out in this economy very difficult. He cites keeping good credit and adjusting inventory to meet customer needs ahead of time as absolutely necessary to keeping small jewelers in business.
“When the economy slowed down I started visiting with my neighbors and sat down face-to-face with them, sometimes over dinner, to find out what they were thinking about for future purchases, then I went out and bought those things.”
Another wise piece of advice from Barney, Sr.: “I live everyday like times are hard and then there aren’t any surprises.”
Definitely not the method of today’s modern entrepreneur, but who can argue with 66 years of success?