“I don’t think people tell the stories. I don’t think people ask the stories.”
Jewelry tells a story. For Kathy, the owner of a 90-year-old jewelry store in Berwyn, Illinois, every piece of her jewelry adds up to a larger, richer history about the business that she joined as a 16-year-old part-time employee and ended up running. A lot of small businesses are labors of love, but the story of Kathy and Hursts’ Berwyn Jewelers is a love story in more ways than one.
KATHY: I don’t think people tell the stories. I don’t think people ask the stories. Jewelry tends to pass down from one generation to the other, and the oral history, in my opinion, is important. In the later years of what I’ve been working on, I’ve been trying to tell older people, sit down and take the pieces of jewelry that you have and write oh my God in cursive, write longhand what the story is so that when you pass away, not only will someone inherit a piece of jewelry, but they’ll inherit the story. As you get older, history becomes more important. When you’re younger, history is very unimportant ’cause you have no history to explore.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. We’re doing something a little different this week. We’re bringing you a love story. It’s about a woman named Kathy, and the 90-year-old jewelry store she owns in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
In 1974, Kathy O’Brien was a high school student in a town just west of Chicago. On the first day of her junior year, her history teacher made an announcement. As Kathy says, a lot of young people aren’t interested in history, but on this day, she was paying attention.
KATHY: At the end of class, he said, if someone’s looking for a part-time job, my brother, my nephew and I have a jewelry store. Here’s the address; you’re more than welcome to come and apply. I was 15 when I came for the interview. I had never been in a jewelry store before. The lady who was there behind the counter—she was cleaning with Windex, she was dressed nicely, she was in a dress. And I thought wow, what a glamorous job.
WAILIN: The store was called Hursts’ Berwyn Jewelers and it had been in the city of Berwyn since 1927. Kathy’s history teacher, Ron Hurst, had worked there part-time when he was younger, along with his brother George, and their father had worked for the original owner as a custodian. In 1966, when the owner died, the Hurst brothers and their nephew bought the store. Kathy started working there part-time during the school year and full-time in the summers. She cleaned, she greeted customers, she learned how to do engraving and how to solder charms on a bracelet. She sold small items under a hundred dollars, things like lockets and cufflinks and key rings. Kathy got to know the jewelry business. And she got to know Ron Hurst, who was divorced and spent weekends with his three children.
KATHY: His oldest was very close in age to me so they would go and do fun things like they’d go to Illinois Beach State Park or they’d go to Great America or they’d go to a museum. So it’s a case of, “Oh okay, so do you want to come along?” And I had a great time, so at that point I got to know his family really well. He was a very generous and gentle man.
When we first started dating, we would go on things like picnics or we would go for walks or things like that. He would read with me.
Well, he bought me a piece of jewelry when I graduated, which was a little diamond ring, which I lied to my parents and told them it came from the store, but it was really from him because I didn’t want my parents to know that I was getting expensive gifts from men. And he gave me a couple of pairs of opal earrings. One of the first presents he gave me was an album called Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which is Mahler—very heavy for an 18-year-old person. I thought, “Holy cow, why did he buy this for me? I don’t get it.” You know, there was 21 years age difference between us. Sometimes the age difference between people takes some bridging.
WAILIN: Working at Hursts’ Berwyn Jewelers was Kathy’s first job besides babysitting, and she never left. She found where she belonged at the store, and with Ron.
KATHY: There used to be a restaurant in Villa Park called Jerry Sharko’s. It was a nice restaurant, served steaks et cetera and he proposed to me on Christmas Eve. I remember the pianist in the corner. The ring that I got was a heart-shaped diamond, which is kind of unusual. It was set in rose gold and green gold, which wasn’t very common back then either. And obviously I loved it and obviously I said yes.
I was brought up very Roman Catholic, eight years of Catholic school, and I was wanting to marry a divorced man. That’s like—that’s just forbidden and my father said to me, he said, “I’m not going to your wedding.” And I said, “Okay, I’m still getting married. That’s your choice.” They were concerned for me. I mean obviously as parents, you’re concerned, is someone taking advantage of you? They were concerned, I’m sure, that I was inheriting a family. When you’re that old and you’re not even sure how to cook your own dinner and do your own laundry, inheriting a family of three children is kind of a big deal, but they had seen the amount of the amount fun I had with Ron.
WAILIN: Kathy’s father did end up blessing the marriage and attending their wedding in June of 1977. Afterward, the couple went on a three-week honeymoon to St. Maarten, which to this day is the longest vacation Kathy’s ever taken. Back at the store, she was now the manager and taking on increasing responsibility.
KATHY: I got to be involved in some of the buying decisions, which heretofore I wasn’t involved in, and oddly enough, old-school jewelers would not tell their employees anything about how much stuff cost. It was a deep, dark secret. And so the men always would always know that. I don’t know that I knew that information until well into my marriage. There was a certain set of letters that would go on tags so that you would know how much you paid for something. And you have to maintain a certain margin to be able to keep the doors open, to pay your employees, to get new product in that’s innovative and creative. And so that was probably the biggest eye opener for me. It’s like, “Holy cow, this is hard work” as far as managing the money aspect of it and choosing the right product mixes.
WAILIN: In 1993, Ron retired from his teaching job and turned his full attention to the store. The rise of the American shopping center had spawned mall jewelers that advertised big discounts. To address the new competition, the Hursts started carrying designer brands that you couldn’t find at the local mall. At an industry trade show in Las Vegas, Kathy and Ron discovered an emerging company called Hearts on Fire that had come up with a new way to cut diamonds.
KATHY: We both looked at the diamonds in person and they were gorgeous. I mean, we had never seen diamonds so beautiful. You could take it and like tweezers or a plunger to hold it, and you could turn it and you could see all the colors of the rainbow just glistening off of it. It was an explosion of light and color. It was just amazing.
WAILIN: The Hursts were so taken with the Hearts on Fire diamonds that they put up $50,000 to become a dealer, the largest amount of money they’d ever had to come up with at one time. Today, Hursts’ Berwyn Jewelers is the longest-running Hearts on Fire dealer in the Chicago area. And on the Hursts’ 25th wedding anniversary, Ron gave Kathy a Hearts on Fire diamond to upgrade from her modest engagement ring.
KATHY: I put it into a designer setting by the name of Simon G. It had baguettes on it. It had had a little bit of yellow gold and some platinum. It was really fancy but simple. It didn’t stick up. It wasn’t like really flashy. But if you looked at the small details, it was just beautiful.
WAILIN: The Hursts’ focus on designer brands transformed the store, which in its earlier days had sold costume jewelry and products like tie tacks and even silverware. Kathy and Ron put a microscope on the counter and started teaching customers about diamonds. And their role as a generational jeweler kept evolving. It was no longer as common for parents to bring their children to Hursts as the family’s de facto store to buy an engagement ring. Kathy was seeing more couples shopping for rings together or customers coming in with Pinterest boards full of ring photos. The store hung a rainbow flag above the door. It was adapting and still had many loyal customers. But in 2014, everything changed.
KATHY: So my husband died of lymphoma, which he had for five years. When he passed away, people thought, “Oh my God, the store’s gonna close” because I was always kind of the day-to-day girl. I was the one who made sure things got done, you know, and Ron was the visionary. So when you lose the visionary in a business, you know, does it go on? So the challenge to me was first of all, will people still come here with just me?
I talked to my business adviser and I said to him, “People keep coming in and they want to ask about Ron and they want to give me condolences,” and it was so fresh. I could remember, I wouldn’t know how to talk to them, so I would sometimes make a joke. It was my way of trying to not becoming too emotionally involved with them at the moment. I said, “How do I handle this? How do I deal with the fact that I’m grieving the person that I’ve known since I was 16, the person I’ve spent my whole life with, that I’ve built a business with, and how do I deal with that?”
I decided that I would write a letter, kind of a love letter to my husband and to what our business had been and my vision of the future, and I sent it to every customer who had done business with me for the last five years. I didn’t care if they were only a battery customer or if they bought a $20,000 diamond ring. I didn’t want them to come in and have that shock hit them and then have to explain it. That made a huge difference for me because that way, I didn’t feel like I had to go through the grief of his passing with each person that I met. That was my best method of moving forward with the business and letting people know that this was basically our child, and since it was our child, of course I wasn’t going to give it up, it was important to me and I wanted to make sure that it survived and thrived without him.
WAILIN: Kathy went back to work. Just a couple months after Ron passed away, she took her daughter to the annual industry show in Las Vegas, the same one where she and Ron had discovered Hearts on Fire all those years ago. Back when the Hursts attended the show together, they’d usually spend $100,000 on products for the store. In 2014, Kathy didn’t know if she wanted to go at all. But her business advisor thought it would be a good idea.
KATHY: And he told me, he said, “Don’t spend any money. He said just go and be with friends. You know, let yourself heal.” And I said okay.
WAILIN: Kathy spent $50,000 on jewelry at the show. She couldn’t resist, and she felt like it was her job to be proactive about finding new products to carry at the store. It had been six years since the recession in 2008, but Kathy was seeing that customers were still hesitant to splurge on luxury items like jewelry.
WAILIN: So I tried to look for things that were affordable, things that were bold, so that you could come out of the kind of hard years, where women’s self purchase was—and pardon my vernacular—women’s self purchase was in the toilet after the market crashed. You know, moms don’t spend on themselves unless they feel that the whole family is doing well. Then you’ve got to change price points. You’ve got to have things that are $50 to $250 and a fairly broad stretch of it so that they feel like they can come into a nice jewelry store and not feel intimidated.
WAILIN: The first year after Ron’s death, the business grew 9 percent. It grew another 9 1/2 percent the year after that. Despite the positive numbers, running the store was becoming a challenge. George, Ron’s brother who also owned the business, had retired some years earlier. Other key people, including Kathy’s business manager and accountant, were planning to retire themselves. Kathy lives 23 miles away from the store and has pets at home that need care. It was getting to be too much.
KATHY: And I’m finding that in order to get the work done the way I expect it to be done, and I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I’m staying here until 10, 11 o’clock at night. I’m up in the morning at 5 in the morning. I go and work out two days a week, so I’m up at 3:30 on those morning days and, you know, there is no life. There’s things that you just have to look at as dominoes going into the future. And my brother-in-law’s 89, I feel that it’s appropriate that he should get some money out of the business. And the only way I can give that to him is by closing.
WAILIN: On The Distance, we usually feature businesses that are still running. Hursts’ Berwyn Jewelers is the first story we’ve done about a business that’s winding down. Closing the shop was a difficult decision for Kathy Hurst. She loves the store. It’s what she built with Ron and shared with him during their life together.
KATHY: It truly is my child. It’s my love child with my husband. But I feel at this point that I’ve honored my commitment to my husband. I’ve done a good job at what I do. I don’t feel that it’s fair to my clients to not do as good of a job. And if I continue to work like 90 hours a week, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for self exploration, for me to grow as an individual. So that’s why I’m leaving my love. That’s why I feel that it’s the right time and I will still be relevant. I will not go home and sit. That’s not who I am.
WAILIN: Kathy doesn’t have a closing date yet. She’s not going to turn off the lights until every client who needs a repair or a new watch battery gets serviced. She’s had some offers to buy the building and acquire the business outright, but she’s not ready to make a decision yet. In the meantime, Kathy has lots of ideas about what to do next. She might become a jewelry appraiser, join the nonprofit sector, or volunteer at a veterans hospital. She’s also thought about getting into grief counseling, since she was so appreciative of the help she got after Ron died.
KATHY: I’m not worried about my future. My future is bright. I’m excited about it. I want to learn new things. I want to explore who the girl is that started when she was 16 and has been a jeweler her whole life. I want to see who she is. I’ve never had the opportunity to know anybody else but her. So it’s my time to explore me and see how I can be relevant in the world going forward.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. You can subscribe to our show on iTunes or wherever you get podcasts, and while you’re there, please leave us a rating or review. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.