A diamond downtown
At age 60, Gene’s Jewelers increasingly is among a rare breed of stores in the downtown area. A second-generation family business, owners are in the store every day creating fashionable jewelry and making sure customers’ needs are a top priority.
Founded by Gene Battista in May 1954, Gene’s Jewelers is today operated by his daughter, Patricia Battista-Fleeger and Thomas Crowley.
Patricia and Thomas have maintained a business partnership and a friendship that has survived the demise of more than a half dozen other jewelry stores in the downtown area. Today, only Gene’s Jewelers, 112 North Park Ave., and Thom Duma Fine Jewelers are left on Courthouse Square.
“It has been tough in recent years, because people have been experiencing hard economic times,” Battista-Fleeger described. “But we’ve worked to make sure that all of our customers feel comfortable when they walk in our doors.”
Battista-Fleeger said the store carries jewelry valued at $10 to $10,000 and everything in between.
Crowley said customers are like part of their extended family.
“We know seven out of 10 customers by their names and, if we don’t, we will know them by the second time they come in,” he described. “We try to have that kind of relationship.”
The owners say they learned early that having personal relationships with their clients is good for the business.
“My father was a great salesman,” Battista-Fleeger said. “Not in a pushy kind of way, but he learned the likes and dislikes of people who came into the store.
“When I was younger and would go shopping with him for new jewelry pieces, he could look at items and name customers who would like the pieces,” she said. “He would be right.”
It is that kind of insight they are trying to keep in the store.
“We have a store in which people feel comfortable coming in,” she said.
Gene Battista purchased the store from Eugene Kay in 1954, when it was still in the lobby of the Park Hotel. In the early days, Gene and Alda Lee Battista, his wife, sold a lot of jewelry and cameras. Later, they added pewter pieces.
It was not until 1970 that the building in which the store is now located was purchased. At the time, it was renamed Gene’s & Son, because Battista-Fleeger’s brother, John, joined his father in the business.
Both siblings worked in the business as they were growing up.
“When I was 8, I used to walk here from St. Mary’s School to work here,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to work in the family’s business. I never wanted to work anywhere else.”
Although she let her family know early she wanted to work with them, she had to get a college education, obtain a certification from the Gemological Institute of America and work outside of the family businesses to gain business expertise before returning home.
Thomas and Patricia became active participants in the family business in 1988.
John Battista worked in the store for many years but left in 1978.
Veronica “Ronnie” Starr has worked at Gene’s Jewelers for more than 15 years and is an integral part of the business.
“She has her own clients,” Battista-Fleeger said. “There are some people who come here because she is here. She is part of the store’s family and a part of our lives. She does everything that we do here.”
In addition to selling jewelry and other gift items, Crowley does a lot of jewelry repair with a laser welder in the store.
“We do about 99 percent of the repairs in house,” Crowley said. “We find that people like not having to have their jewelry sent away to be repaired.”
The store is doing an increasing amount of appraisals for families and estates, and she designs unique jewelry.
The store owners believe the area’s economy is slowly coming out of recession.
“Sales this past Christmas were about 40 percent better than they were in the previous years,” she said. “I feel good about coming into work every day. People are more upbeat and are happier.”
Patricia describes selling to the children and grandchildren of some of her father’s original customers.
“We recently sold jewelry to a soldier stationed in Afghanistan who corresponded with us through email and phone calls,” she said. “We were able to get everything he wanted ready, so when he came into town on leave he could pick the jewelry up.”
It is that kind of relationship with with customers that makes operating the small family-owned jewelry store worthwhile.
“It takes a lot of love and dedication to continue a business into the next generation,” she said. “Operating a small business is something you must feel in your heart.”