Berman: The little jeweler that could
They like to call it the longest running show on (Detroit's) Broadway — but they never guessed the plot would offer so many twists.
This modest Detroit jewelry store, Simmons & Clark, entering its 90th year this month, has outlasted most of Detroit's retail giants — the great Woodward Avenue stores that loomed large when Fred Simmons and his partner Harry Clark opened on Broadway in 1925.
Simmons had moved to Detroit from Columbus five years before, working in a jewelry store, saving for the day he could open his own. He believed that Detroit's workers making $5 a day or more in the auto factories would be prepared to spend some of their new wages on pocket watches and engagement rings.
In 1934, surrounded by a Great Depression, Simmons and Clark moved from what is now a Broadway parking lot to their current location next door at 1535 Broadway. For decades, they were among many jewelers who plied their trade in the city, fixing watches, crafting jewelry, especially in the Metropolitan Building, for other retailers, or selling from storefronts.
"There used to be 273 jewelers in Detroit and we're the only ones who survived," says Michael Simmons, grandson of the founder. His father, George Simmons, 89, still works at the store five days a week. The Clark family is now involved only tangentially: "They're our lawyers," says Michael.
The Simmons & Clark brand survived suburban expansion — stores in Northland, Eastland and other local malls — along with all of the city's turbulence, from 1967 mass violence that bypassed the store, to changes in fashion jewelry, and the city's decline.
Coleman Young bought a watch here before he joined the Tuskegee Airmen. Mary Wilson stopped by. Over 10 decades, the customer base remained mostly Detroiters, from all professions and corners of the city. Now the father and son are seeing an influx of downtown workers and residents, a new group of young people who are starting their work lives in the city.
"Now we have the new Quicken people, the casinos, all of the people living and working downtown that is quite a sudden change," Michael Simmons says. The changes for now are positive ones.
New customers are creating a different kind of business: They're planning weddings.
"Our engagement ring business is increasing exponentially," says Simmons, who decided when he was 6 that he'd follow his father and grandfather into the family business. "It's fun every day, because you're part of all the great events in someone's life. When I was in school, you'd give a girl an I.D. bracelet, and maybe a friendship ring, and then an engagement ring. Who wouldn't want to be part of the good stuff?"
It's the kind of place, he says, that prides itself on service. If you forget your wife's anniversary, and need a gift, it can be wrapped and delivered to your office downtown. If you want to talk about the best way to propose to your fiance, the staff is happy to help.
The neon sign above the door, a vintage 1950s landmark, with the firm name and a clock above it, is a trademark that's been meticulously restored, in readiness for what no successful retailer in this city ever blithely assumes: a prosperous future.