Northwest Business Magazine

Success Story: Dubes Jewelry

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Since 1870, this jewelry store has served customers from the same location, and for the past 60 years, one familiar face has served his customers faithfully. Discover what keeps this store’s passionate octogenarian owner at work seven days a week.

Ken Corey has owned Dubes Jewelry in Janesville, Wis., since 1952. The store was founded in 1870. (Blake Nunes photo)

Stepping into Dubes Jewelry, 21 W. Milwaukee St., in downtown Janesville, is like stepping back in time. Although the products and customers have evolved over the years, little else has changed since Ken Corey, then 25 years old, purchased the city’s oldest jewelry store in 1952.

The display cases, the flooring, even the bottle glass panel backroom doors are the same ones Corey installed in 1969, when he rebuilt the store, which was founded in 1870. An old safe – one that Harry Houdini reportedly broke out of – has been protecting the merchandise for nearly 143 years. His desk is covered with receipts, yellowed newspaper clippings, handwritten notes and an old adding machine.

“I’ve outlived a lot of the competition, and business is still good, so I think this thing will just go on,” says Corey, now 87. “I still enjoy coming to work.”

A full-service jewelry store, Dubes carries a variety of rings, earrings, necklaces, pendants and watches. A goldsmith and watchmaker are always on hand, as is a graduate gemologist who offers appraisals and evaluations.

“If I can’t identify it, I won’t tell you what it is,” says Leon Maerz, a graduate gemologist who’s spent two years at Dubes, but has more than 30 years of gemology experience. Because of his and Corey’s wide experiences, customers are confident about the services and products offered by Dubes.

“That’s a solid 100 years of experience between the two of us,” Maerz says. “That’s good, for just two people.”

When Corey bought the business in 1952, his parents ran an office equipment store on Main Street in downtown Janesville. One day, while Ken was helping them, C.W. Dubes, the jewelry store’s fourth owner, posed an offer.

“Mr. Dubes came into the store and said he was looking to sell the business,” Corey recalls. “I was just married and had a couple of kids, so I came down the next day and, on a handshake, bought the business – a handshake!”

Starting out, Corey relied upon the retail practices he learned from his parents, as well as longstanding traditions at the jewelry store, which had continually served customers from the same location F.C. Cook opened in 1870. Corey expanded his knowledge of gems and jewelry through correspondence courses, and took pains to retain longtime customers.

“We kept it going the same way it was,” says Corey. “My wife would always say that, a lot of times, new people buy a store and want to change it right off the bat, even when the business had been doing OK. Chances were that when they changed things, customers wouldn’t always appreciate those changes.”

On the wall outside his office hangs a collage of items documenting Corey’s younger years: photos, advertisements and newspaper articles, including one about a fire that destroyed the building next door and damaged his building.

Hardly a customer passes by who doesn’t know Corey.

“Hey there, Russ, how ya doing?” Corey calls out from his office, to a customer at the watchmaker’s desk.

“How’s my old buddy Ken?” comes the reply.

“I’m not sure,” Corey laughs.

Working closely with other members of the downtown neighborhood association, securing Christmas decorations and the like, Corey’s made a lot of friends over the years.

“I know a lot of people by name,” he says. “And, I’ve sold two or three generations of engagement rings. We sell stuff at a reasonable price, compared with some of the stores that are in the high-rent district. We stand behind what we sell, and I’ve never really received a complaint against the store in 60 years.”

Corey’s built a reputation on quality, and it’s not unusual for other stores to send customers his way. “When other stores get into trouble, they send people down here, because we’ve had more experience,” he says.

The way Corey sees it, that’s a good problem to have. In this ever-evolving marketplace, Dubes remains competitive by focusing on its tradition and service.

“We’ve been here so long that people keep coming back,” says Corey. “There used to be 10 jewelers in town, and now we’re down to five. Our business is always running just behind schedule, because we’ve got that much business.”

His competition isn’t the only thing that’s changed. Jewelry, and especially watches, have changed drastically. Big-name watchmakers like Elgin and Hamilton closed their doors back in the 1960s. Technologies within watches are different, too.

“The young people don’t hardly know what a watch is anymore, because a lot of them just use their phones,” Corey says. “And there’s a little trend now for branding, providing your own unique merchandise, so your jewelry is more branded than it used to be.”

Corey’s staff members repair and service watches and clocks, including the vintage wooden clocks that line a display case in the store. Corey has added products like sterling silver wedding bands – a popular new option – and sells antique jewelry. He also sells some merchandise on eBay. Once-popular products, including pocket watches and silverware, have gone by the wayside, which is fine with Corey.

“Years ago, I had lots of silver – flatware and hollow ware, and we’d have to clean it up all the time,” he says.

Although products and merchandising have changed, one aspect of customer demand has not, says Corey.
“Young people want to do something different than their parents,” he explains. “When I first started, it was white gold and platinum wedding bands. That was 60 years ago. Then, it went to yellow gold, and now it’s white gold again. It seems that new generations don’t want what their mothers and dads wanted.”

One attribute that has helped Corey to be successful is an ongoing willingness to listen and learn, and that includes listening to salesmen. In his early days, Corey would meet overdressed, well-manicured salesmen who’d spend all day pitching their wares and demonstrating products. Today, he says, the salesmen are less spiffy, but they still have valuable ideas.

“They have the advantage of seeing a hundred stores, so they see everything,” says Corey. “And, they’ve got a lot of knowledge, so if you get to know them, the salesman will come in and say, ‘Ken, I think you should put in this line or that line, or don’t put in that line.’ I listen to them – I don’t always do what they say, but they can be very helpful. I get a lot of good ideas from salesmen.”

Corey isn’t much for technology – the store’s only computer is in the care of a staff member who’s responsible for maintaining business records. “I don’t even know how to work them,” he laughs. But it doesn’t seem to hamper his business success.

After so long in the lead, one might expect that Corey is preparing for retirement, but he quickly dismisses that idea. “I’m not planning on it,” he says. “I enjoy this.”

Corey works every day, taking just one half-day break each week. To him, the store is home, and his customers are like family. He’s living his dream and sees no reason to stop.

“You see different people, different problems, different employees. I know a lot of the people downtown, and have been active in the chamber of commerce over the years. I’ve still got lots of friends, business friends and customer friends,” he says. “I think it gets into your blood. I love to come here. Every day is a new challenge.”

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