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Davich: County’s oldest retail gem closing its doors after 128 years

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Updated: July 28, 2014 6:28AM



Connie Burkes didn’t hesitate one nanosecond in response to my question: What will she miss most after closing her beloved jewelry store?

“Oh, the customers,” she sighed in between helping customers. “I’ll miss the customers. They’re like family.”

After 128 years in business — the oldest continuously operating retail store in Lake County —Odell-Smith Jewelers in Hobart is soon closing its doors. The old gem of a downtown business lost its luster some time ago.

“It’s time,” explained Burkes’ husband, Del, when I visited their store on Wednesday.

That was the first day of the store’s “going out of business sale,” the worst kind of sale for any business owner. The sale at Odell-Smith could last a month or so before its doors are shuttered for good.

“Our accountant has been trying to get us to do this for a couple years now,” said Del, who took over the store with his wife in 2007.

“It’s just too large for us anymore,” said Connie, who started working at the jewelry store in 1972.

“And too old,” Del added. “It has three furnaces, three utility bills and six doors.”

Once upon a time, the corner store had the jewelry market cornered in the city and possibly in the region. Founded in 1886 by Edward Odell, his son-in-law Jay Smith joined the business in 1929 and the store moved across the street. Its name was changed to Odell-Smith Jewelers.

It was a great idea during the Great Depression, eventually surviving World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, the turbulent ’60s, the Digital Age and everything in between. It expanded into its current space, a former restaurant and beauty shop.

Through the decades, the store sold sheet music, crystals, sports trophies, figurines, musical instruments, you name it. Then again, it was a time capsule or museum as much as a jewelry store.

“Jay Smith ran it until the early ’70s,” Del noted as longtime customers popped in to say hello, pay their respects or make a purchase.

The Burkes “inherited” the store after store owner and longtime family friend Ed Edstrom died, at age 84. But not before he taught Del just about everything he knew in the business, including rudimentary watch repairs.

Even to the end, Edstrom would converse with Del from his hospital bed by scrawling advice on a chalkboard.

“He really cared about this store and its customers,” Del said while showing me where he does watch repairs in the back room.

Edstrom, who was Smith’s nephew, studied gemology, where he learned about gold sales and watch repairs. He and his wife, Betty, who had lived in Butte, Montana, eventually moved to Indiana to run the family jewelry store.

Connie met the Edstroms more than four decades ago when she inquired about a sales job. She never left and part of her still doesn’t want to. But the clock is ticking and she knows it.

Some of her longtime customers put total trust in Connie’s judgment and taste by asking her to pick out a special ring for either their wife, mother or daughter. She’d have it boxed, wrapped and ready to go — sight unseen — when they arrived.

The recession hit the store hard, like it did for most small businesses. Sales dipped. Repair jobs weren’t enough.

“Repairs bring in money, but we needed new sales to stay in business,” Del explained.

Too many jewelry customers think, “If I don’t pay a lot of money for jewelry then I guess it’s not worth much,” Del said, shaking his head. “I would tell them, ‘Come see us. I can get you the same gem for half the price.’ ”

And now may be the best time to do this, I suggest.

Being the oldest continuously operating retail store in Lake County was a badge of honor for the couple, but it didn’t pay the bills.

“It doesn’t bring any more customers through the doors but it did bring in bragging rights,” Del said. “We always took pride in being recognized for this honor.”

(For the record, The Davis Store, a women’s clothing store in Lowell, holds the record for longest running retail store, serving customers for 129 years before closing several years ago.)

The Burkes hope to open a new jewelry store in Hobart if they can pull it off. (Watch the Burkes explain it in their own words. Check out my video at posttrib.suntimes.com/news/davich/index.html.)

“We have to settle this estate first,” said Del, who’s creating a customer list for notification updates. “We want to keep it downtown, though, not farther out.”

Customers I heard from were surprised and saddened by the news.

“I got my ears pierced there when I was a very young girl,” recalled Michele Burton. “My mom bought me my first necklace there, too. So many memories.”

Lynn Smith said she still wears the ring her ex-husband bought her from Odell-Smith in 1974. And she still goes there for watch batteries, a recent ring and matching earrings.

“A Hobart icon for sure,” she said.

A region icon, for sure.

Freedom to marry,
but for how long?

Wednesday’s historic news of a federal judge striking down Indiana’s ban on same-sex marriage allowed gay couples to finally wed in this state. And many did, including Scott Fech and Rick Soria of Hammond, who’ve been together longer than most couples I know.

But how long until that ruling is appealed by the state attorney general’s office? That’s my question.

On today’s “Casual Fridays” radio show, we’ll tackle this issue by chatting with Evan Wolfson, founder and presiden of Freedom to Marry, and also with Fech and Soria, among other gay Hoosiers personally involved in this battle for equality.

If you want to join the discussion, including critics of this ruling, call in at 769-9577. Tune in at noon Friday at 89.1-FM, streaming at lakeshorepublicmedia.org/local-programs/casual-fridays/.



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