Fleisher Jewelers to Close Down After 63 Years
A failing business brings heartache and bittersweet memories for second generation local jeweler.
Business is personal for Fred Fleisher, the 49-year-old, second-generation manager of Fleisher Jewelers of Maryland in the Queenstown Shopping Center in Chillum. His store, founded and still owned by his now ailing father in 1949, will close by the end of the year.
In an interview, Fred talked about his experience in the family business with a mixture of sadness and bittersweet remembrance.
"I have poured everything I own into this to keep it from failing," said Fleisher, looking off into the middle distance, trying to stifle tears brought on by memories of a lifetime of work seemingly dissolving in front of him. "Even though it's not my fault we are closing, it feels like I have let everyone down."
That "everyone" includes his employees, his customers, and perhaps most importantly, his father, 88-year-old William Fleisher.
Fred, sitting in a vintage wood paneled back office still arranged in much the same way as his father left it five years ago, revealed a complex relationship with his father, one shaped by perhaps a tinge of resentment for having more memories of the man as a boss or business partner than memories of him as a dad.
"My father was of the school that work came before everything else, even family at times," said Fred. "It was my mom who went to all the school plays and stuff."
Fred has been in the shop since he was 3 weeks old. He got his first job there when he was 12. In 2005, he took over management of the store as his father's mental health diminished with age.
The elder Fleisher founded the store in a small space across Queens Chapel Road from its current location back in October 1949. The store relocated to its current spot in 1962.
William was born and raised in Baltimore. His family owned a grocery, but the Depression hit the family business hard and the store was forced to close in the '30s. When World War II came, William served stateside in the Army. In 1945, he met his wife, Eleanore.
She came from a wealthy family which had land in Washington, DC. She also worked as a reporter for the old Washington Star.
Fred was unable to recall which beat she covered, but he remembered a family tale of how his mother was rudely rebuffed for an interview by the wealthy Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, one-time owner of the Hope Diamond.
According to Fred, when his mother met McLean to conduct an interview about the diamond, McLean asked if Eleanore was a Jew. When Eleanor said that her last name was indeed Jewish, McLean abruptly shut down the interview.
Fred describes his father as a pillar of the community. He was one of the original group of planners behind the Mount Rainier Community Pool. He also sponsored local contestants in beauty pageants. Twice, once in the '60s and once in the '70s, the young women he sponsored made it to the final round of the Miss America Pageant.
The store, in its heyday, carried major watch lines, sponsored University of Maryland football and basketball teams as well as the Washington Redskins.
"If you were famous, he wanted to be around you," said Fred.
The Fleisher's regular clients included the Archdiocese of Washington and several local Masonic fraternities. To this day, Fred says you can't find a jeweler who sells Masonic items within a two hour drive of Washington.
The elder Fleisher was a shrewd businessman, and poured his life and soul into the store. He was also a demanding boss.
"He was taught that if you didn't treat your employees like crap, they wouldn't respect you," said Fred. It was a theory which the elder Fleisher routinely put to practice. "If you didn't have work, he made work for you. He'd walk around putting fingerprints on things and then would ask you why the merchandise was dirty."
Where William Fleisher was the public face of the store, Fred says it was his mother who was the brain behind the operation.
"She was the reason the store is what it is," said Fred.
In the '90s, Eleanore suffered a mild stroke while working in one of the back offices in the store. While itself not too debilitating, it signaled the beginning of a long string of health problems for Fred's mother in the sunset years of her life. Increasingly, William took time to care for Eleanore.
For the first time in his life, Fred began to see a more loving side to his father.
Fred's mother lived until 2010, three years into his management of the family store. When she died, Fred recalls living between two worlds. In one, he was keeping the struggling shop open and making customers happy. In the other, he was enduring the loss of his dearly beloved mother, the woman who managed to raise a family while doing a considerable amount of the back-end work required to keep the store in the black.
In a way, it made him realize how hard it must have been at times for his father to balance the physical and emotional demands of work and life.
"He would always say, if you were getting married, 'I hope it's on a Sunday, otherwise I can't make it.'" said Fred. "I hated that, but that's what I'd turned into."
Fred now cares for his father in the family home in Hyattsville. The elder Fleisher's memory is all but gone, a process Fred thinks was accelerated by the demands of caring for Eleanore in her later years. According to Fred, William is now unaware that he is still the legal owner of the jewelry shop.
As to the demise of the business itself, there is little to say. The 2005 transition was disastrous for the store. Fred described a "mass exodus" of employees once he took over.
"We went from a store with more than 100 years of business experience among the staff, to one with less than 25 years," said Fred. "The writing was on the wall."
One former employee predicted that the store would be closed down within a year. This only gave Fred more motivation to try and make the store work.
But it was clear he was fighting an uphill battle. Situated in an aging shopping center, itself the product of a bygone era of urban design, the store struggled to draw foot traffic.
Fred also stuck to old business practices, perhaps stubbornly so. Receipts are still written out by hand. The cash register was mechanical. The elder Fleisher refused to develop a website for the store, a practice which Fred continued. The store had an email address only because Fred did not want to handle business from his personal email account.
The store itself is a bit dated, admits Fred. He said in recent years there was not enough money to modernize the shop's design.
Rent has also increased beyond the means of the store in recent years, according to Fred.
"Nothing against the property management, but for the neighborhood, I think it's overpriced," said Fred.
Some macro-economics also come into play. The price of gold has shot through the roof over recent years, putting much jewelry out of reach for consumers.
The rise of internet and big box retail has also offered stiff competition.
"The internet and Wal-Mart have destroyed local jewelers," said Fred.
For now, Fred finds himself searching for a job for the first time since he was 12. He'll be content to work as a jeweler in a corporate chain, but he's open to anything that pays.
And despite his sometimes wrenching experience with the store now, Fleisher leaves open the possibility of running his own jewelry store again in the future.
"I don't want to close this store down," said Fred. "If I won the lottery, I'd do the same thing in a different location."